Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed the third week
of July "Captive Nations Week" in 1959, Americans have acknowledged
the citizens of oppressed nations. Although the Berlin Wall fell
nearly 20 years ago, and although the number of communist countries
has dwindled to five--China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and
Laos--many peoples around the world face the evils of oppression,
communist and otherwise.
Captive nations are unfortunately not a thing of the past. Not
only do communist countries such as China and North Korea pose
potential roadblocks for U.S. foreign policy, but regimes ruling
Iran, Burma, and Libya, among others, provide constant sources of
grave concern. Citizens subject to tyranny do not control their own
future. They are denied basic human rights and liberties. The
United States is often forced to confront these nations on an
international stage, and each presents a unique set of problems. It
is a challenge that the United States, as the world's freest and
most powerful nation, must continue to meet.
China is one example of a country that presents multiple foreign
policy challenges. With nearly 1.5 billion people, China is the
most populous country in the world and one of the United States'
main trading partners.
Despite its progress on economics and trade, China's human
rights record remains deplorable. In August 2008, Beijing had the
opportunity to showcase its greatest assets to the international
community by hosting the Summer Olympics. Its athletes did their
part for sure, but the Chinese government "failed to uphold pledges
of an open media environment during the games, and expectations
that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] would enact broader reforms
or make gestures toward improved human rights also proved
Furthermore, in order to accommodate the Olympics, tens of
thousands of families were evicted from their homes, and their land
was confiscated by the state. Additionally, on a daily
basis, the CCP ensures that political dissent is eliminated, the
media tightly regulated, and religion suppressed through the use of
Despite China's egregious human rights record, the United States
maintains close diplomatic relations owing to global economics.
During her first trip abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
traveled to China and made it clear that human rights could not
"interfere" with the progress of her visit. As Hillary Clinton's
focus centered on the economy, she ignored China's human rights
violations, suggesting that the liberty of the Chinese people was
not a major priority of the Administration.
In this instance, America's strong record of promoting human
rights was sadly neglected. I bring this up not to contradict
myself on America's dedication to liberty, but to send a message
that America must not waver in the promotion of her founding
China's failures in human rights and civil liberties are shared
by one its closest allies, the Democratic People's Republic of
Korea (DPRK). According to The Heritage Foundation's 2009 Index
of Economic Freedom, North Korea "is one of the world's most
oppressed and closed societies." Its government is founded on
Marxism and has, since its establishment in 1948, evolved into one
of combined extreme nationalism, xenophobia, and the use of state
While North Korea has attempted to flex its weak international
muscle by repeatedly testing its nuclear weapons capabilities,
"Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il has failed to achieve much in the way of
international influence. Rather, Kim Jong-il not only holds his
citizens captive through government oppression, but is currently
holding American citizens captive.
American attempts at reason with North Korea have yielded
negligible progress, and Kim Jong-il continues to threaten the
world with North Korea's growing nuclear capabilities as well as to
devastate his own people. Similar to the situation in China, North
Koreans are deprived of the basic human rights that are
nonnegotiable in most of the Western world.
The vast differences between American democracy and communism
are on display a mere 90 miles off the shores of Miami.
Historically, America's antipathy toward communism has been
experienced in its severely strained and until recently nonexistent
relations with Cuba. Relying on autocratic leaders like Venezuelan
President Hugo Chávez, the Cuban government depends on
external assistance like subsidized oil and remittances from Cubans
The United States, under the leadership of President Barack
Obama, has recently stated that it "seeks a new beginning with
Cuba," despite the Cuban government's routine
denial of individual rights to citizens. Cubans are frequently
deprived of political participation and the ability to vote in
competitive elections, protection against arbitrary arrest, due
process of the law, humane treatment while in custody, free
expression and thought, peaceful assembly, free association, and
the right to receive and impart information.
While President Obama has announced that Cuban-Americans would
be able to travel freely to Cuba as well as send increased
remittances, Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba's
parliament, has expressed little reciprocity: "We have to do
absolutely nothing except take note of and recognize the corrective
steps when they [the U.S.] take them." It is difficult to
understand how U.S. relations with Cuba can improve with this
mentality. Still, as the Obama Administration has recently made
obvious with China, it will allow individual rights to fall by the
wayside in pursuit of amicable foreign relations.
Not only does communism have a devastating impact on the
liberties of those subject to its rule, but economic freedom is
devastated because of it. In 1995, the United States restored
diplomatic relations with Vietnam through their first trade
agreement. Many believed that this opportunity would liberalize
Hanoi's state-controlled economy and that Vietnam would be the next
However, economic progress has been severely stunted owing to
the centrally planned economy and the state-owned enterprises
consuming subsidized loans from government-owned banks. The economy
rapidly plummeted, and hopes for a new economic power in Asia
quickly dwindled. While the U.S. continues to develop trade
relations, Vietnam's suppression of political dissent continues to
be the main issue of contention in relations.
In 2007, Vietnam drew considerable ire from the Bush
Administration and Congress when the regime "launched a crackdown
on political dissidents, and in November the same year arrested a
group of pro-democracy activists, including two Americans."
Then, "in 2008, the Vietnamese government tightened controls over
the press and freedom of speech and convicted two journalists for
their reporting on high-level corruption." Despite these
unfortunate setbacks, the United States continues to promote reform
and investment in the regime, which has been growing in recent
Vietnam's close neighbor, Laos, is also "governed by one of the
world's few remaining Communist regimes." Additionally, it is one of
Asia's poorest nations. In 1991, the government made an attempt
to liberalize the economy, but on the whole, it failed miserably.
As poverty leaves a devastating impact on Laos's people, many are
forced to become economic migrants and seek work in neighboring
Though China invests heavily in Laos, taking advantage of the
land's natural resources, many Laotians are displaced owing to the
increasing influx of Chinese businesses and workers. In one
attempted protest against perceived Chinese intrusion, the
organizer was abducted and the protestors suppressed by the
government. Such assemblies are severely restricted by the regime
because they allegedly "cause turmoil or social instability."
Laos's poverty has also made its people vulnerable to human
trafficking. Women are at the greatest risk for exploitation and
are frequently sold into prostitution and other odious
enterprises. Although women are supposedly guaranteed
the same rights as men under the law, the government does nothing
to curb the threat against them.
While communist countries are flagrantly guilty of depriving
their citizens of liberty, there are other oppressive regimes that
also deny their people the rights they would normally be granted in
a free state. Iran is one example. A theocracy, Iran is ruled by
the Shiite clerical elite, otherwise known as the Council of
The most powerful political figure in Iran is the supreme
leader. As the individual holding the most influence, the supreme
leader is head of the armed forces. He also appoints the leaders of
the judiciary and the chiefs of the state broadcast media and half
of the Council of Guardians.
The president and legislative branch of Iran are mere servants
of the clergy and hold little sway in the implementation of law. As
Iranian policy is based on Sharia law, citizens are subject to the
clergy, who then guide the president in its enforcement. Iranian
citizens are therefore subject to an undemocratically elected body
that interprets the law in the manner it sees fit.
Military dictatorships are equally guilty of suppressing the
rights of their citizens in countries such as Burma and Libya.
Since 1962, Burma (whose leaders prefer to call the country
Myanmar) has been ruled by its military and continues to be one of
the world's most oppressive regimes. According to Freedom
House, the ironically named State Peace and Development Council
(SPDC) controls all executive, legislative, and judicial powers,
suppresses all basic rights, and commits human rights abuses with
Libyan leader Mu'ammar Qadhafi was a young military captain when
he and his army overthrew the Libyan king while he was traveling
abroad. While Qadhafi holds no official title, he
continues to lead the country in a strict totalitarian fashion.
Heritage's 2009 Index of Economic Freedom rates Libya the
region's least free nation and reports that, "despite having one of
Africa's highest per capita incomes, Libya has suffered from more
than 30 years of socialist economic policies and international
Although the United States resumed relations with Libya in 2004
after Qadhafi abandoned plans for the development of nuclear
weapons, Libya's people are devastated by government control. As
most of the land is owned by the government, citizens have no
property rights. Furthermore, foreign companies are at great risk
for government expropriation.
According to Freedom House, although relations with the United
States have thawed, Libya's poor performance in human rights has
showed no signs of improvement. Political freedom in Libya is
nonexistent. Political parties have been outlawed for 35 years, and
many Libyan opposition movements have been forced to operate
outside the country. All political activity is strictly
monitored, and the only form of public assembly that is permitted
includes rallies demonstrating support of the regime.
When President Obama traveled to Italy for the G-8 Summit in
early July, he stated that there are signs"that relations have
improved considerably between the U.S. and the North African
nation." Despite Qadhafi's blatant human rights
violations and harsh criticism of the U.S., President Obama
continued his attempts to enhance America's image by reaching out
to the controversial leader.
While communist and other forms of totalitarian regimes violate
individual rights and freedoms in almost every capacity, there are
allegedly democratic governments that do so as well. It is
important to mention that merely because a government claims to be
a democracy does not necessarily mean that it is one in
For example, Venezuela is an electoral democracy in name.
However, in 1999, Venezuela's Constituent Assembly, dominated by
President Hugo Chávez, drafted a new constitution that
strengthened the presidency, introducing a unicameral National
Since enhancing the power of his office, Chávez has
continued to lead Venezuela despite much outrage and frequent
deadly protests. While elections are held, opposition candidates
are often "forced to operate under difficult positions,"
further weakening their influence and dramatically reducing their
chances for election.
Though many of the peoples formerly living under oppression are
now free, there are millions across the globe that are not afforded
the basic human dignities that are considered sacrosanct to
As President George W. Bush stated, the United States is "a
Nation forged from the ideals of freedom, justice, and human
dignity, [and] we will continue speaking out on behalf of oppressed
people." America must strive to promote the
principles of democracy and awareness of human rights so that all
peoples are treated with equal fairness and the dignity that is
their God-given right.
Helle C. Dale is Deputy
Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies and Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison
Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Davis
Institute, at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered
at a program marking the 50th anniversary of National Captive
Nations Week that was held at The Heritage Foundation. The author
thanks Morgan Roach, Research Assistant in the Margaret Thatcher
Center for Freedom, and Heritage Intern Jonathan Liedl for their
help in preparing these remarks.