Human Rights,  Obama

For a new US approach on human rights

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is taking some heat for failing to put a higher priority on human rights during he recent visit to China.

Human Rights Watch objected to Clinton’s comment that raising issues such as human rights “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises” and that on human rights issues it “might be better [for the US and China] to agree to disagree.”

“Secretary Clinton’s remarks point to a diplomatic strategy that has worked well for the Chinese government – segregating human rights issues into a dead-end ‘dialogue of the deaf,'” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “A new approach is needed, one in which the US engages China on the critical importance of human rights to a wide range of mutual security interests.”

And as a critical Washington Post editorial noted:

When reporters asked whether she intended to raise human rights questions during her first visit to Beijing as a Cabinet secretary, Ms. Clinton affected a world-weary air. “We know what they are going to say because I’ve had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders,” she said.

Of course complaints about China’s (or Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s) human rights records by visiting US officials have become ritualized to the point of meaninglessness. Unless the US is prepared to back up its words with serious actions, the rulers of these countries find them easy enough to shrug off.

Nonetheless I agree with the critics. Whether she intended it or not, Clinton’s remarks sent a worrying signal that human rights may become a secondary concern for the Obama administration. It’s up to Obama, Clinton and others to counter that impression.

George Bush’s rhetoric on human rights and democracy was often excellent– almost the only praiseworthy thing about his presidency. But it was undercut by his double standards when it came to “friendly” and hostile regimes. It seemed at times that Bush was more eager to push freedom and democracy on our enemies than on our “friends.”

So I hope Obama will both talk the talk and walk the walk– even if it creates some difficult moments. This doesn’t necessarily mean lecturing repressive regimes for the nth time, knowing full well what their response (or lack thereof) will be. It doesn’t mean– except possibily for the most brutal and genocidal regimes– military intervention.

It does mean encouraging and assisting the democratic opponents of repressive regimes in whatever ways are most effective. I’d like to see Obama make it a condition for visiting any country that he have the right to meet with members of the democratic opposition– even if they happen to be in jail. The signals this would send would be far more powerful than a few perfunctory words in a closed-door meeting with the countries’ leaders.