State Department's new political prisoners initiative is good for democracy

Essay By
Learn more about Joseph Kim.
Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim
Program Manager, Global Policy and Expert-in-Residence
George W. Bush Institute

“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” – Elie Wiesel  

Htin Kyaw is a Burmese dissident who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for condemning Burma’s military junta and organizing a peaceful protest. His fight for justice came with a high cost. He lost everything: his business, friends, and even family. Htin Kyaw’s brother, who feared retaliation from the authorities for affiliating with a political activist, has not spoken to him since 1988. Unfortunately, today, there are more than a million political prisoners like Htin Kyaw worldwide. 

The freedom we often take for granted here in the United States is not free; we must remember this. We have the moral obligation to preserve and advance freedom for ourselves and others. As a former refugee from North Korea, and advocate for freedom and democracy here at the George W. Bush Institute, I believe that as the world is experiencing democratic backsliding, the task of promoting and advancing freedom is more urgent than ever. The best way to protect our freedom is to share it with people who are not yet free.  

Relatedly, the Bush Institute recently released a series of policy recommendations that include calls for American leadership to strengthen freedom and democracy globally. The policy brief encourages the Biden Administration and other democratic leaders to increase efforts that spotlight and support brave individuals from around the world struggling for their freedom. 

As such, we are encouraged by the State Department’s launch of the Without Just Cause Political Prisoners Initiative. This program aims to raise public awareness and advocacy campaigns to release political prisoners around the world who have been detained without a just cause and fair trial.  

Why does it matter?Remaining silent in the presence of injustice is morally wrong and consequential for the freedom we enjoy today. As Elie Wiesel said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference” because “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” In other words, when free nations like the United States remain silent or stagnant, it encourages and emboldens authoritarian regimes like Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Burma, and many other bad actors to continue oppressing their citizens, often with inhumane and brutal forms of repression.   

Why should we care when these abuses take place far from our home? Standing up against injustice is a moral imperative that also brings practical benefits to our way of life. As our policy recommendations articulate, advancing freedom around the world directly benefits Americans because: free societies with democratic values tend to promote economic prosperity, inspire peaceful co-existence despite different cultural, political, and religious beliefs, encourage the rule of law, and reduce the probability of going to war.  

Why should the United States lead this effort?  The Bush Institute believes that American leadership – from government and civil society to the private sector and individual citizens – is necessary for freedom to thrive at home and abroad. A common argument against greater U.S. involvement, however, is that the United States is not a perfect democracy and has issues of its own. The short, often unsatisfying answer is, democracy is never perfect – no system is. Democracy is a process – not the end goal – that enables human flourishing. It helps us maintain social peace through politics instead of violence, protects our rights, limits the power of government, and maximizes the ability of people to make decisions about their own lives. In fact, as our former colleague Lindsay Lloyd argued, that “imperfection makes our testimony all the more powerful.” What makes America a great nation is not just its military and economic might, but its commitment to principles and an identity that is rooted in the belief that all people are equal and entitled to freedom and dignity, and the understanding that this is not a privilege reserved for Americans, but all citizens of the world. 

The Without Just Cause Political Prisoners Initiative is indeed ambitious work that, as part of a comprehensive democracy support policy and in cooperation with various actors across American society, will need to be cultivated and continued over generations. Recently, though, I learned that monarch butterflies take three generations to complete their migration from the peak of North America to Central America. Similarly, there is no shortcut to justice. The path is often long and arduous, but someone must take that journey, even if it is a difficult road ahead. America has been on this course since its founding, and it must continue to lead others down the path to freedom and democracy. In doing so, our nation helps create a world where Htin Kyaw’s fight for freedom is both celebrated and successful.