Obama’s Human Rights Record a Disappointment

One year into their term in office, the Obama administration’s record on human rights has been a major disappointment.

In part because the Bush administration abused the promotion of democracy and human rights to rationalize its militaristic policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama administration has at times been reluctant to be a forceful advocate for those struggling against oppression. For example, Obama was cautious in supporting the ongoing freedom struggle in Iran, in part because he believes that more overt advocacy could set back what he sees as the more critical issue of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He is also aware of how the history of U.S. interventionism in that country, overt threats of “regime change” by the previous administration, and the U.S. invasion of two neighboring countries in the name of promoting democracy could lead to a nationalist reaction to such grandstanding. (Despite this caution, however, the Iranian regime has falsely accused Obama of guiding the massive pro-democracy movement that is challenging the increasingly repressive rule in that country.)

Harder to defend is Obama’s continuation of the Bush administration’s policy of arming and training security forces in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Jordan and other dictatorial regimes in the region.

During his highly anticipated address in Cairo last June, Obama failed to praise his autocratic host, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He also invited leading critics of the regime, including secular liberals and moderate Islamists, to witness his speech. On the other hand, he refused to criticize the Mubarak regime, acknowledge its autocratic nature, or address any concern over its thousands of political prisoners — even when pushed to do so in a BBC interview. Indeed, Egyptian grassroots pro-democracy group Kefaya chose to boycott the speech, demanding that Obama show his commitment to democracy in deeds, not just words. Obama’s foreign aid budget includes over $1.5 billion in unconditional aid to the Mubarak dictatorship. And Washington didn’t publicly express concern when Egyptian police attacked American human rights activists attempting to deliver relief supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip last month.

Most of the opposition to Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan has been based on cost and the dubious prospects of victory. But there is concern that the government for which Americans are expected to fight and die is a serious abuser of human rights. Not only did U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai steal the most recent presidential election, but his cabinet includes a number of notorious warlords who have engaged in serious crimes against humanity. Furthermore, U.S.-backed Afghan security forces have engaged in gross and systematic human rights violations, and U.S. bomb and missile attacks killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan since Obama assumed office.

Similarly, U.S. forces remain in Iraq, and billions of dollars support the sectarian regime despite ongoing violations of human rights by Baghdad’s rulers. The recent dismissal of charges against U.S. Blackwater mercenaries, who massacred 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Al-Nusur Square, and the Obama administration’s refusal to extradite them to face justice have also raised concerns regarding the U.S. commitment to basic human rights.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Obama administration rejected calls by Amnesty International and other human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel following its use of U.S. weaponry against civilian targets in last year’s war on the Gaza Strip, which resulted in more than 700 civilian deaths, over 300 of whom were children. Even worse, Obama has pledged to increase military aid over and above the more than $10 billion provided to the Israelis by the Bush administration. The Obama administration called on Israel to freeze expansion of its colonization efforts in the occupied West Bank and threatened to cut planned loan guarantees to the Israeli government if it continues to refuse. But Obama still rejects conditioning direct aid and has similarly refused to call on Israel to withdraw from the its illegal settlements, as required under international humanitarian law and confirmed through a series of UN Security Council resolutions.

When the UN Human Rights Council investigation led by Richard Goldstone documented war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government — confirming previous investigations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others — the Obama administration rejected the commission’s findings, calling them “deeply flawed.” Rather than challenge the content of the meticulously documented 575-page report, U.S. officials instead issued strong but vague critiques. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was particularly critical of the report’s recommendation that Palestinians and Israelis suspected of war crimes should be tried before the International Criminal Court. “Our view is that we need to be focused on the future,” she argued.

The human rights community was initially pleased when Obama appointed Michael Posner, cofounder and director of Human Rights First, as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. However, Crowley took the lead in quashing the Goldstone Commission report, insisting it “should not be used as a mechanism to add impediments to getting back to the peace process.” Ironically, just weeks earlier, the Obama administration argued during a UN debate on Darfur that war crimes charges should never be sacrificed for political reasons.

The Obama administration has shown a lack of concern for democracy and human rights outside the Middle East as well. Washington initially raised objections to the coup in Honduras that ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. But then Obama — in opposition to virtually the entire hemisphere — recognized the November elections that took place under a censured media, widespread political repression, and a boycott by pro-democracy forces. The administration also pledged to continue sending over half a billion dollars of aid annually to the Colombian regime, despite its notoriously poor human rights record. It even signed an agreement that allows U.S. forces to be stationed at seven military bases across that country. Though ostensibly the focus is to curb the drug trade, such aid has also been used in broader counterinsurgency efforts that have serious human rights consequences.

Rejecting calls by liberal Democratic members of Congress, leading human rights groups, Pope Benedict XVI, and most of the international community to participate, the Obama administration decided to boycott the UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Geneva. And most disturbingly, the Obama administration decided to continue the Bush administration’s policy of remaining one of the few nations in the world to refuse to sign the international treaty banning landmines, completing its review process in secret without allowing for any input from human rights organizations.

Despite all this, there have been some gestures in support of individual human rights activists. For example, in an unprecedented move, the White House hosted the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, with Obama personally honoring this year’s recipients, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, who have been struggling for human rights under the repressive Mugabe regime. The White House also intervened on behalf of the 2008 winner, Western Saharan nonviolent activist Aminatou Haidar, as she verged on death from a hunger strike following expulsion from her country by Moroccan occupation authorities. The Obama administration has failed, however, to demand that Morocco honor a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a World Court ruling allowing the people of Western Sahara the right of self-determination.

To Obama’s credit, there is now a subtle but important shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view of human rights. It focused, for instance, on elections — which can easily be rigged and manipulated in many cases — in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing the rights of free expression, particularly the right of protest, and recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not through imposed means.

In the short term, however, Obama’s failure to more boldly address human rights concerns has alienated much of Obama’s progressive base of support. The right wing, meanwhile, disingenuously portrays Obama as retreating from his predecessor’s supposed support for democracy and human rights. Although the Bush administration provided even more assistance to governments engaged in human rights abuses and used pro-democracy rhetoric largely as a ruse for empire, Obama’s lukewarm support for human rights has enabled right-wingers to seize the moral high ground. As a result, the perceived weakness of the Obama administration’s human rights record raises important ethical and political questions.