As one would expect from so eloquent a leader, President Obama has brought about a marked improvement in presidential rhetoric on human rights in comparison with his predecessor. In a series of speeches around the world, carefully tailored for each audience, the president has set forth a compelling vision, emphasizing that respect for human rights is not only right but also broadly beneficial for the United States and the world. The challenge facing his administration is translating that rhetoric into policy and practice.
In Cairo, for example, President Obama stressed the importance of democracy. Unlike President George W. Bush, who stopped promoting democracy in the Middle East when Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood fared better than expected in Egyptian parliamentary elections, Mr. Obama suggested that he would accept the results of fair elections no matter who won. But disappointingly, he has done little to push U.S.-allied autocrats in the region, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the Saudi royal family, in a more democratic direction.
In Africa, President Bill Clinton once lionized such “new African leaders” as President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, each of whom has since turned in a disturbingly authoritarian direction. Mr. Obama implicitly repudiated that approach during a speech in Accra, when he said that Africa does not need “strong men” but “strong institutions,” such as honest police forces, powerful parliaments and independent journalists. Yet that insight has not yielded sustained pressure on either Mr. Kagame or Mr. Zenawi to reverse course.
The Russian government has sought to impede critical human rights reporting by imposing burdensome regulatory requirements. Mr. Obama responded by meeting with civil society leaders and stressing in a Moscow speech that U.S. civil society, by questioning his policies, made him govern better. Yet he has not put serious pressure on Russia to bring to justice those people behind the murder epidemic of activists and journalists — arguably the most serious threat to Russian civil society today.
President Obama touched on the right points about the importance of respecting human rights when visiting China, but he undermined his message by failing to meet beforehand with the Dalai Lama and by flubbing his response to a question about the Chinese Internet firewall, by suggesting that censorship might represent a different “tradition” rather than an obvious violation of freedom of expression. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not help matters when she said earlier that human rights “can’t interfere” with other U.S. interests in China. Predictably, Mr. Obama got little if anything in human rights terms from his visit to China. Indeed, a short time later, China imposed one of the lengthiest prison terms in a long time on a leading human rights activist.
Even on counterterrorism — the area where Mr. Obama’s policies appeared at first to be farthest from Mr. Bush’s — the results are less than had been hoped. Mr. Obama ordered the C.I.A. to abide by the military’s stricter rules for interrogation and shut the secret detention facilities where terrorism suspects “disappeared” and were tortured, but he has refused to investigate — let alone prosecute — the senior officials who ordered torture or the government lawyers who provided thin legal justifications for it. It is not enough for a president to observe the law if he does not also defend the law by prosecuting those responsible for blatant breaches.
Similarly, Mr. Obama said he would close the Guantánamo Bay prison, but it seems he may have meant only the physical facility, not the policies that it represents; he proposes to continue trying some suspects in military commissions that are slightly improved from those that Mr. Bush supported, but still substandard. In addition, the Obama administration has now indicated that some 47 suspects will continue to be subject to long-term detention without trial. Suspects held unjustly in Guantánamo or tried in military commissions are worth far more to terrorist recruiters than suspects who are released. It would be better to try them in regular federal courts, which have proved fully capable of handling these types of cases, than military commissions. Regular trials are most likely to produce results, the fairness of which no one could contest.
President Obama recognizes the importance of redeeming America’s reputation on human rights after the dark Bush years. But it will take more than impressive rhetoric to succeed. Words must be followed by deeds.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. A longer version appears in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs. Tribune Media Services
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