Obama Stumbles on Human Rights

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Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF)

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.  

Tongue-Tied

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.

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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