Obama's Human Rights Policy a Disappointment

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, Posner 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

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

In the short term, however, Obama's failure to more boldly address
human rights concerns have 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.

© 2023 Foreign Policy In Focus