Obama Stumbles on Human Rights

It was a relatively short response to a question in a town hall-style meeting in Florida, yet it said much about President Barack Obama’s lack of concern about human rights in his foreign policy. The question came not from a hostile Republican opponent, but from a young college student who had volunteered on Obama’s campaign. She spoke directly to an issue that has alienated much of Obama’s Democratic base since the president took office: ongoing U.S. support for Israeli and Egyptian human rights abuses. The Israeli and Egyptian governments, both of which have notoriously poor human rights records, are the two largest recipients of U.S. security assistance.

The student’s question was simple: Given that Obama had spoken about “America’s support for human rights,” she asked, “Why have we not condemned Israel and Egypt’s violations of human rights against the occupied Palestinian peoples [while continuing to support such oppression] with billions of dollars coming from our taxes?”

Obama didn’t even try to answer her question. He didn’t even utter the words “human rights” at any point in his rambling four-and-half-minute response (though he did praise Israel as “a vibrant democracy”).

Perhaps he could be forgiven in some respects. Obama looked tired. It wasn’t a formal White House press conference or a one-on-one interview with a knowledgeable reporter, but a town-hall meeting with an audience for whom he may have felt he needed to frame the larger subject. Perhaps he was intimidated by right-wingers in the audience, who booed the student’s question at the outset.

Yet Obama’s fumbled answer seemed to underscore the administration’s dismissive attitude toward human rights overall. Indeed, at the end, Obama even implied that the student’s question was inappropriate, saying, “I think that it’s important, when we’re talking about this issue to make sure we don’t use language that’s inflammatory.” What the president apparently found inflammatory was the very suggestion that the United States should object to human rights abuses committed by its “strategic allies.”

At the UN

Obama directed the U.S. delegation at the United Nations last week to vote against a General Assembly resolution, which called on the Palestinians and Israelis to conduct “independent, credible” investigations into alleged war crimes by their forces during the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009. The United States was one of only seven countries to vote no.

Previously, Obama administration officials denounced the Goldstone Report as “unacceptable” and “deeply flawed.” The meticulously researched 575-page report, led by the eminent South African jurist Richard Goldstone and a blue-ribbon panel of investigators, documented likely war crimes by both Israel and Hamas. A similar report by Amnesty International called for an international moratorium of arms transfers to both Israel and Hamas. After that report was released, the Obama administration announced increased military aid to Israel.

Obama has also failed to show any greater concern about human rights abuses by Egypt, even when Egyptian security forces charged and beat hundreds of Americans and other internationals seeking to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip late last year. In an interview with the BBC, Obama rejected the journalist’s characterization of Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler, and praised the Egyptian dictator as a “stalwart ally” and “a force for stability.” He then evaded a question on the thousands of political prisoners being held by the Egyptian regime by saying the United States shouldn’t impose its values on other countries.


The young woman’s question at the Florida town hall appeared to trip up the usually articulate Obama from the outset. He began his response with a tautology reminiscent of former Vice President Dan Quayle: “The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries.” After setting the audience straight on that score, he goes on to say that “both sides are going to have to make compromises,” ignoring the fundamental asymmetry between one side, which is an occupying power, and the other side, which is under foreign military occupation. If Obama had been president in late 1990, he wouldn’t have told Iraqis and Kuwaitis that “both sides are going to have to make compromises.” Obama appears to share his predecessors’ view that issues of conquest and self-determination shouldn’t be based upon universal legal principles, but on whether the occupier is seen as an ally or an adversary. The call on both sides to compromise is also rather bizarre, given that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have recognized Israeli control of 78 percent of historic Palestine, while Israel has insisted that Palestinian demands for an independent state on the remaining 22 percent are too much and that it should control much of that territory as well.

“As a first step, the Palestinians have to unequivocally renounce violence and recognize Israel,” Obama also insisted. However, he failed to likewise insist that the Israelis unequivocally renounce violence and recognize Palestine — as a “first step” or at any other time. The ratio of Palestinian civilians killed to Israeli civilians killed in recent years has been roughly 200:1, which makes his one-sided demand particularly bizarre. He also ignored the fact that the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization — the recognized ruling bodies of the Palestinian territories — have already renounced violence and recognized Israel. He seems to imply that until Hamas, which illegally seized control of the Gaza Strip three years ago, also unilaterally renounces violence and recognizes Israel, which it won’t do until Israel is willing to reciprocate — then Israel can continue to deny statehood to the majority of Palestinians who live under the PA-administered West Bank.

The only thing that Obama insisted that Israel needed to do was to “recognize legitimate grievances and interests of the Palestinians.” He is unclear as to what that entails, other than a brief reference to the right to education and employment. He didn’t insist, however, on their right to be free of the threat of massive bombardments against civilian population centers, like an Israeli assault on Gaza that killed more than 700 civilians, nearly 300 of whom were children.

Such lack of concern for human rights not only raises serious ethical and legal concerns, but makes the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace even more remote. It’s also bad politics. Thousands of young people, like the student who posed the question, volunteered for Obama and other Democrats partly because they thought the party would offer a foreign policy based upon strong ethical and legal principles, such as respect for international humanitarian law.

Until the Obama administration is willing to live up to that promise, and governments like Israel and Egypt know they can no longer get a blank check from the U.S. government no matter how terrible their human rights record, U.S. complicity in war crimes and other abuses will be obvious to all. As a result, many who worked for Obama and the Democrats in 2008 — like that young woman from Florida — will question how different they are from Republicans, and whether they deserve their continued support.


Obama and the Denial of Genocide

The Obama administration, citing its relations with Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full House of Representatives of a resolution passed this past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of a 1.5 million Armenians. Even though the Obama administration previously refused to acknowledge and even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern ally, few believed that the administration would go as far as to effectively deny genocide.

Following the committee vote, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that “We are against this decision,” and pledged that the administration would “work very hard” to prevent the bill from coming to the floor. Despite widespread support for the resolution by House Democrats, she expressed confidence that the administration would find a means of blocking the resolution, saying, “Now we believe that the U.S. Congress will not take any decision on this subject.”

As candidates, both Clinton and Barack Obama had pledged that their administrations would be the first to formally recognize the Armenian genocide. Clinton acknowledged that this was a reversal, but insisted that circumstances had “changed in very significant ways.” The State Department, however, has been unable to cite any new historical evidence that would counter the broad consensus that genocide had indeed taken place in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. The official excuse is that it might harm an important rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. However, there is no indication the Armenian government is at all concerned about potential negative fallout in their bilateral relations over a resolution passed by a legislative body in a third country.

More likely, the concern is over not wanting to jeopardize the cooperation of Turkey, which borders Iran, in the forthcoming enhanced sanctions against the Islamic republic.

Back in 2007, a similar resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide also passed through the House Foreign Relations Committee. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promised that she would allow it to come for a vote. With 226 cosponsors — a clear majority of the House — there was little question it would pass. However, in response to claims by the Bush White House and Republican congressional leaders that it would harm the “Global War on Terror,” Pelosi broke her promise and used her power as speaker to prevent a vote on the resolution. She will also certainly buckle under pressure from an administration of her own party.

The Historical Record

Between 1915 and 1918, under orders of the leadership of the Ottoman Empire, an estimated two million Armenians were forcibly removed from their homes in a region that had been part of the Armenian nation for more than 2,500 years. Three-quarters of them died as a result of execution, starvation, and related reasons.

According to Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during that period, “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.” While issuing a “death warrant to a whole race” would normally be considered genocide by any definition, this apparently isn’t the view of the Obama administration.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by the United States, officially defines genocide as any effort “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The earliest proponent of such an international convention was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who originally coined the term “genocide” and identified the Armenian case as a definitive example.

Dozens of other governments — including Canada, France, Italy, and Russia — and several UN bodies, as well as 40 U.S. states, have formally recognized the Armenian genocide. The Obama administration does not, however, and is apparently determined to prevent Congress from doing so.

Congress has previously gone on record condemning Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for refusing to acknowledge the German genocide of the Jews. Congress appears unwilling, however, to challenge Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians. While awareness of anti-Semitism is fortunately widespread enough to marginalize those who refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust, tolerance for anti-Armenian bigotry appears strong enough that it’s still considered politically acceptable to deny their genocide.

The Turkey Factor

Opponents of the measure argue that they’re worried about harming relations with Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire and an important U.S. ally. However, the United States has done much greater harm in its relations with Turkey through policies far more significant than a symbolic resolution acknowledging a tragic historical period. The United States clandestinely backed an attempted military coup by right-wing Turkish officers in 2003, arming Iraqi and Iranian Kurds with close ties to Kurdish rebels in Turkey who have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish citizens. The United States also invaded neighboring Iraq. As a result, the percentage of Turks who view the United States positively declined from 52 percent to only 9 percent.

Generations of Turks have been taught that there was no Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, but that there were scattered atrocities on both sides. Indeed, most Turks believe their country is being unfairly scapegoated, particularly when the United States refuses to label its treatment of American Indians as genocide or acknowledge more recent war crimes. As a result, some argue that a more appropriate means of addressing the ongoing Turkish denial of historical reality would be through dialogue and some sort of re-education, avoiding the patently political device of a congressional resolution that would inevitably make Turks defensive.

Failure to acknowledge the genocide, however, is a tragic affront to the rapidly dwindling number of genocide survivors as well as their descendents. It’s also a disservice to the many Turks who opposed the Ottoman Empire’s policies and tried to stop the genocide, as well as the growing number of Turks today who face imprisonment by their U.S.-backed regime for daring to publicly concede the crimes of their forebears. For example, Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature, was prosecuted and fled into exile to escape death threats after making a number of public references to the genocide.

Some opponents of the resolution argue that it is pointless for Congress to pass resolutions regarding historical events. Yet there were no such complaints regarding resolutions commemorating the Holocaust, nor are there normally complaints regarding the scores of dedicatory resolutions passed by Congress in recent years, ranging from commemorating the 65th anniversary of the death of the Polish musician and political leader Ignacy Jan Paderewski to noting the 150th anniversary of the first meeting of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.

The Obama administration insists that that this is a bad time to upset the Turkish government. However, it was also considered a “bad time” to pass the resolution back in 2007, on the grounds that it not jeopardize U.S. access to Turkish bases as part of efforts to support the counter-insurgency war by U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. It was also considered a “bad time” when a similar resolution was put forward in 2000 because the United States was using its bases in Turkey to patrol the “no fly zones” in northern Iraq. And it was also considered a “bad time” in 1985 and 1987, when similar resolutions were put forward because U.S. bases in Turkey were considered important listening posts for monitoring the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

For deniers of the Armenian genocide, it’s always a “bad time.”

While the passage of the resolution would certainly lead to strong diplomatic protests from Turkey, it is dubious that there would be much of a rupture between Ankara and Washington. When President Ronald Reagan, a major backer of the right-wing military dictatorship then ruling Turkey, once used the term genocide in relation to Armenians, U.S.-Turkish relations did not suffer.

The Obama administration, like administrations before it, simply refuses to acknowledge that the Armenian genocide even took place. As recently as the 1980s, the Bulletin of the Department of State claimed that “Because the historical record of the 1915 events in Asia Minor is ambiguous, the Department of State does not endorse allegations that the Turkish government committed genocide against the Armenian people.” Even more recently, Paul Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of defense in President George W. Bush, stated in 2002 that “one of the things that impress me about Turkish history is the way Turkey treats its own minorities.”

The operative clause of the resolution simply calls upon Obama “to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide and the consequences of the failure to realize a just resolution.” Therefore, if Obama really doesn’t want Congress to pass such a resolution, all he needs to do is make an executive order acknowledging the genocide. Despite whatever excuses one wants to make, failure to do so amounts to genocide denial.

Genocide Denial

Given the indisputable record of the Armenian genocide, many of those who refuse to recognize Turkey’s genocide of Armenians, like those who refuse to recognize Germany’s genocide of European Jews, are motivated by ignorance and bigotry. The Middle East scholar most often cited by members of Congress as influencing their understanding of the region is the notorious genocide-denier Bernard Lewis, a fellow at Washington’s Institute of Turkish Studies.

Not every opponent of the current resolution explicitly denies that there was genocide. Some acknowledge that genocide indeed occurred, but have apparently been convinced that it’s detrimental to U.S. security to state this publicly. This is still inexcusable. Such moral cowardice is no less reprehensible than refusing to acknowledge the Holocaust if it were believed that doing so might upset the German government, which also hosts critical U.S. bases.

Obama is not the first Democratic president to effectively deny the Armenian genocide. President Bill Clinton successfully persuaded House Speaker Dennis Hastert to suppress a similar bill, after it passed the Republican-led Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 40-7 and was on its way to easy passage before the full House. President Jimmy Carter also suppressed a Senate effort led by Bob Dole, whose miraculous recovery from near-fatal wounds during World War II was overseen by an Armenian-American doctor who had survived the genocide.

Interestingly, neoconservatives — quick to defend crimes against humanity by the Bush administration, the Israeli government, and others — are opportunistically using Obama’s flip-flop on this issue as evidence of the moral laxity of Democrats on human rights.

Adolf Hitler, responding to concerns about the legacy of his crimes, once asked, “Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?” Obama is sending a message to future tyrants that they can commit genocide without acknowledgement by the world’s most powerful country.

Indeed, refusing to recognize genocide and those responsible for it in a historical context makes it easier to deny genocide today. In 1994, the Clinton also refused to use the word “genocide” in the midst of the Rwandan government’s massacres of over half that country’s Tutsi population, a decision that contributed to the delay in deploying international peacekeeping forces until after the slaughter of 800,000 people.

As a result, the Obama administration’s position on the Armenian genocide isn’t simply about whether to commemorate a tragedy that took place 95 years ago. It’s about where we stand as a nation in facing up to the most horrible of crimes. It’s about whether we are willing to stand up for the truth in the face of lies. It’s about whether we see our nation as appeasing our strategic allies or upholding our longstanding principles.


John Hall: Still the One?

In the face of expected Republican gains this year, receiving the support of MoveOn, one of the country’s largest progressive advocacy groups, is of particular importance for Democratic candidates. One of only a handful of House incumbents to receive the coveted endorsement by MoveOn’s political action committee is Democrat John Hall, who represents the 19th district in upstate New York.

John Hall is the former front man for the band Orleans (“Dance with Me,” “Still the One,” etc.) As a solo act, he was the writer of a number of additional songs of note, including “Power” — recorded by Holly Near and others — which became something of an anthem of the anti-nuclear movement. He was one of the co-founders of Musicians United for Safe Energy (M.U.S.E.) and was a long-time supporter of various progressive causes, through which I got to know him personally. In what was initially seen as a progressive victory, Hall was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 19th district in upstate New York back in 2006.

Since being elected to Congress, however, Rep. Hall has moved far to the right. Despite hopes that he would become a leading voice in support of human rights, Hall has instead gone in the opposite direction. Last year, he shocked his progressive supporters by co-sponsoring two resolutions defending a series of war crimes by a right-wing Middle Eastern government allied with the United States and endorsing war against Syria and Iran.

Hall’s first resolution (H. Res. 34), passed last January during Israel’s massive assault on the heavily-populated Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip, insisted that the high numbers of civilian casualties was not the result of yet another implementation of the Dahiya Doctrine — the widely-known Israeli military policy of inflicting overwhelmingly disproportionate casualties on civilian populations in urban settings — but a result of Hamas using “human shields.” Subsequent detailed empirical studies by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Human Rights Council, however, failed to find any such cases of Hamas deliberately using civilians against their will to deter attacks. His second resolution, written long after these studies had been published, similarly insisted there was widespread evidence of Hamas using human shields, but when asked to give even a single example of Hamas doing so, his office refused comment.

Rep. Hall did not stop with this apparent fabrication, however, in his effort to defend the killing of over 700 civilians by Israeli armed forces. His resolution “calls on all nations … to lay blame both for the breaking of the calm and for subsequent civilian casualties in Gaza precisely where blame belongs, that is, on Hamas” (emphasis added). Even putting aside disagreements among outside observers as to whether Hamas was indeed the party primarily guilty for “the breaking of the calm,” Hall appears to be making the argument that if one party initiates a conflict, then the other party therefore has no moral or legal responsibility for war crimes they may subsequently commit. This constitutes a radical reworking of international humanitarian law, essentially legitimizing massive war crimes by a nation’s armed force if the other side allegedly initiates hostilities. Such an re-interpretation, for example, would mean that the large-scale civilian casualties inflicted by Russian forces in Georgia during the 2008 conflict between those countries lies solely with the Georgian government, since they initiated the conflict by shelling civilian areas in South Ossetia.

In reality, international humanitarian law forbids the killing of civilians, even if the other party is using and human shields and even if the other party started the war.

As various human rights groups began to detail the widespread violations of international humanitarian law by both Hamas and the Israeli government during that three-week conflict, Rep. Hall helped launch a campaign to discredit those who documented such war crimes. Even the UN-sponsored commission chaired by the highly-respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone was not immune from Hall’s attacks. When it appeared that the findings of this blue-ribbon panel was to be referred to the UN Security Council, Hall co-sponsored another resolution (H. Res. 867) insisting that the mission’s report was “irredeemably biased.” Given that the Goldstone mission largely reiterated those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups, this was widely interpreted as an attack on the human rights community as a whole, particularly as Hall appears to have deliberately misrepresented what was actually in the report.

The report contained over 70 pages detailing a series of violations of the laws of war by Hamas, including rocket attacks into civilian-populated areas of Israel, torture of Palestinian opponents, and the continued holding of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. However, as part of his desperate effort to discredit the report by making it appear to be biased against Israel, Hall only referred to its criticism of Israeli conduct, failing to acknowledge anywhere in his 1600-word resolution that the report criticized the conduct of both sides. In fact, despite the report’s extensive documentation of Hamas assaults on Israeli towns — which it determined constituted war crimes and possible “crimes against humanity” — Hall’s draft resolution insisted that it “makes no mention of the relentless rocket and mortar attacks.”

The Goldstone mission report, totaling 575 pages, contains detailed accounts of deadly Israeli attacks against schools, mosques, private homes, and businesses nowhere near legitimate military targets, which they described as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” In particular, the report cites 11 incidents in which Israeli armed forces engaged in direct attacks against civilians, including cases where people were shot “while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags.” Hall’s resolution, however, claims that such charges of deliberate Israeli attacks against civilian areas were “sweeping and unsubstantiated.” His office refused to comment as to why he found the meticulously-detailed report, which largely reiterated findings of previous reputable human rights investigations, of such questionable validity.

Hall’s resolution also claims that the Goldstone commission report somehow denied Israel’s right to self defense. In reality, the report only reiterated that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have the right to attack civilians. Hall’s office refused to say where in the report was this alleged questioning of Israel’s right to use military force to defend itself, an apparently indication that Rep. Hall believes that killing innocent civilians should be considered a legitimate act of self-defense, at least if the perpetrator is a U.S. ally. Hall even goes as far as insisting that Goldstone’s report is part of an effort “to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel and deny it the right to defend its citizens” and that the report’s very existence “can be used to delegitimize other democracies and deny them the same right.” This is but one example of the extent of Hall’s demagoguery: In insisting that documenting a given country’s war crimes is tantamount to denying that country’s right to exist and its right to self defense, Hall is clearly attempting to discredit defenders of international humanitarian law and intimidate them into silence.

Indeed, the resolution calls on the Obama administration not only “to oppose unequivocally any endorsement” of the report, but to even oppose unequivocally any “further consideration” of the report in international fora. Instead of debating its merits, therefore, Hall decided to instead pre-judge its contents and disregard the actual evidence put forward. Indeed, there is no indication that he even actually bothered to read the report.

Hall’s resolution resolves that the report is “irredeemably biased” against Israel, an ironic charge given that Justice Richard Goldstone, the report’s principal author and defender, is Jewish, a longtime supporter of Israel, chair of Friends of Hebrew University, president emeritus of the World ORT Jewish school system, and the father of an Israeli citizen. Goldstone was also a leading opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa and served as Nelson Mandela’s first appointee to the country’s post-apartheid Supreme Court. He was a principal prosecutor in the war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, took a leading role in investigations into corruption in the UN’s “Oil for Food” program in Iraq, and was also part of investigations into Argentina’s complicity in providing sanctuary for Nazi war criminals.

Hall also singles out Goldstone Commission member Christine Chinkin for attack in his resolution for noting, prior to her joining the commission, that Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip’s civilian infrastructure was not commensurate to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire, which she also condemned. Chinkin is an internationally respected British scholar of international law, feminist jurisprudence, alternative dispute resolution and human rights who — like Justice Goldstone — had never shown any ideological bias against Israel.

Yet Hall, in an effort to justify war crimes by a U.S. ally, decided to co-sponsor a resolution attacking the integrity of some of the world’s most respected and principled defenders of human rights. Hall apparently believes that the credibility of any human rights defender must be attacked if they dare raise questions about the conduct of a U.S. ally. This may actually be the underlying purpose of his resolution: to jettison any consideration of international humanitarian law from policy debates in Washington. The cost, however, will likely be to further isolate the United States from the rest of the world, just as President Barack Obama was beginning to rebuild the trust of other nations.

Indeed, Hall’s resolution appears designed in part to undermine Obama’s efforts to reverse the saber-rattling of the Bush administration toward hostile governments in the region and to goad Israel, as an American proxy, to make war. Following earlier clauses in the resolution that define Israel’s massive military assault on the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip as a legitimate defense of its citizens and that make the exaggerated assertion that Iran and Syria are “sponsors” of Hamas, the final clause in his resolution “supports Israel’s right to defend its citizens from violent militant groups and their state sponsors.” (emphasis added.) In short, Hall is calling for a unilateral Israeli attack on Syria and Iran.