During his presidential campaign, then-senator Barack Obama emphasized negotiations rather than military action. The Republicans ridiculed his focus on diplomacy as naive. “Strong countries and strong presidents meet and talk with our adversaries,” Obama said during an August 19 debate. “We shouldn’t be afraid to do so. We’ve tried the other way. It didn’t work.”
Candidate Obama argued that the United States had to put diplomacy at the forefront of American foreign policy. But today, a leading civil rights organization is charging that one aspect of diplomacy – the language of “dialogue” and “cooperation” – is little-understood, rarely reported on and is being used by governments throughout the world as a fig leaf to conceal their tacit acceptance of egregious human rights abuses.
“The ritualistic support of ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation’ with repressive governments is too often an excuse for doing nothing about human rights,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
His remarks come as the organization released its “World Report 2011,” a 649-page summary of human rights issues and practices in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide.
“Too many governments are accepting the rationalizations and subterfuges of repressive governments, replacing pressure to respect human rights with softer approaches such as private ‘dialogue’ and cooperation.’ … Instead of standing up firmly against abusive leaders,” many governments “adopt policies that do not generate pressure for change.”
The report was particularly critical of the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU) and the United States of America.
The famed eloquence of US President Barack Obama “has sometimes eluded him when it comes to defending human rights,” the report says. It cites as examples bilateral contexts with China, India and Indonesia.
Criticism in the report is not limited to foreign policy. For example, it says that the United States “sets a dubious world record with 2,574 minors serving life sentences at the time the report was written.”
It says Obama has failed to insist that the various agencies of the US government, such as the Defense Department and various embassies, convey strong human rights messages consistently – a problem, for example, in Egypt, Indonesia and Bahrain.
The report notes that Obama “increased his focus on human rights in his second year in office, but his eloquent statements have not always been followed by concrete actions. Nor has he insisted that the various US government agencies convey strong human rights messages consistently, with the result that the Defense Department and various US embassies – in Egypt, Indonesia, and Bahrain, for example – often deliver divergent messages.”
The report charges that the Obama administration, in its first year, “simply ignored the human rights conditions on the transfer of military aid to Mexico, under the Merida Initiative, even though Mexico had done nothing as required toward prosecuting abusive military officials in civilian courts.”
In its second year, the report says, although the administration “did withhold a small fraction of funding, it once again certified – despite clear evidence to the contrary – that Mexico was meeting Merida’s human rights requirements.”
“The US also signed a funding compact with Jordan under the Millennium Challenge Corporation [MCC] even though Jordan had failed to improve its failing grades on the MCC’s benchmarks for political rights and civil liberties,” according to HRW.
A similar dynamic is at play in China, where Western governments seek economic opportunity as well as cooperation on a range of global and regional issues. For example, in its first year in office, the Obama administration seemed determined to downplay any issue, such as human rights, that might raise tensions in the US-China relationship.
President Obama deferred meeting with the Dalai Lama until after his trip to China and refused to meet with Chinese civil society groups during the trip, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that human rights “can’t interfere” with other US interests in China.
The report declares that Obama’s efforts to ingratiate himself with Chinese President Hu Jintao “gained nothing discernible while it reinforced China’s view of the US as a declining power.”
That weakness, the report says, “only heightened tension when, in Obama’s second year in office, he and Secretary Clinton rediscovered their human rights voice on the case of Liu Xiaobo, although it remains to be seen whether they will be outspoken on rights during the January 2011 US-China summit.”
The report, which was published before the Washington visit of China’s president, concludes, “The Chinese government is naturally reluctant to promote human rights because it maintains such a repressive climate at home and does not want to bolster any international system for the protection of human rights that might come back to haunt it. But even China should not see turning its back on mass atrocities – a practice that, one would hope, China has moved beyond – as advancing its self-interest.”
US policy toward Egypt shows that pressure can work, the report says.
“In recent years, the US government has maintained a quiet dialogue with Egypt. Beginning in 2010, however, the White House and State Department repeatedly condemned abuses, urged repeal of Egypt’s emergency law, and called for free elections.”
“These public calls helped to secure the release of several hundred political detainees held under the emergency law,” the report says.
Egypt also responded with anger – for example, waging a lobbying campaign to stop a US Senate resolution condemning its human rights record. “The reaction was designed to scare US diplomats into resuming a quieter approach, but in fact it showed that Egypt is profoundly affected by public pressure from Washington,” the report charges.
It says that, with respect to Saudi Arabia, the US government in 2005 established a “strategic dialogue” that, because of Saudi objections, “did not mention human rights as a formal subject but relegated the topic to the ‘Partnership, Education, Exchange, and Human Development Working Group.'” But it notes that “even that dialogue then gradually disappeared.”
The report further notes that, “While the US government contributed to keeping Iran off the board of the new UN Women agency in 2010 because of its mistreatment of women, it made no such effort with Saudi Arabia, which has an abysmal record on women but was given a seat by virtue of its financial contribution.”
Western governments also have been reluctant to exert pressure for human rights on governments that they count as counterterrorism allies, the report declares.
For example, it says, the Obama administration and the Friends of Yemen, a group of states and intergovernmental organizations established in January 2010, have not conditioned military or development assistance to Yemen on human rights improvements, “despite a worsening record of abusive conduct by Yemeni security forces and continuing government crackdowns on independent journalists and largely peaceful southern separatists.”
According to HRW, “One common rationalization offered for engagement without pressure is that rubbing shoulders with outsiders will somehow help to convert abusive agents of repressive governments.”
The report says that the Pentagon makes that argument in the case of Uzbekistan and Sri Lanka, and that the US government adopted that line to justify resuming military aid to Indonesia’s elite special forces, Kopassus, “a unit with a long history of severe abuse, including massacres in East Timor and ‘disappearances’ of student leaders in Jakarta.”
“With respect to Kopassus,” HRW says that “while the Indonesian government’s human rights record has improved dramatically in recent years, a serious gap remains its failure to hold senior military officers accountable for human rights violations, even in the most high-profile cases.”
In 2010, the report says, “The US relinquished the strongest lever it had by agreeing to lift a decade-old ban on direct military ties with Kopassus. The Indonesian military made some rhetorical concessions – promising to discharge convicted offenders and to take action against future offenders – but the US did not condition resumption of aid on such changes.”
As a result, the report says, “Convicted offenders today remain in the military, and there is little reason to credit the military’s future pledge given its poor record to date.”
Trivializing the significance of pressure, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates justified resuming direct ties with Kopassus.
“Working with them further produce[s] greater gains in human rights for people than simply standing back and shouting at people,” said Gates. Yet HRW notes that, “[E]ven as the US was finalizing terms with Indonesia on resumption of aid to Kopassus, an Indonesian general implicated in abductions of student leaders was promoted to deputy defense minister and a colonel implicated in other serious abuses was named deputy commander of Kopassus.”
A similarly misplaced faith in rubbing shoulders with abusive forces rather than applying pressure on them informed President Obama’s decision to continue military aid to a series of governments that use child soldiers – Chad, Sudan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – despite a new US law prohibiting such aid.
In the case of Congo, for example, the military has had children in its ranks since at least 2002, and a 2010 UN report found a “dramatic increase” in the number of such children in prior years. “Instead of using a cutoff of military assistance to pressure these governments to stop using child soldiers, the Obama administration waived the law to give the US time to ‘work with’ the offending militaries,” HRW says.
Another favorite rationale for a quiet approach, heard often in dealings with China, is that economic liberalization will lead on its own to greater political freedoms – a position maintained even after three decades in which such freedoms have not materialized.
Indeed, in 2010 the opposite occurred. In its regulation of the Internet, China began using its economic clout to try to strengthen restrictions on speech, pressing businesses to become censors on its behalf. In the end, it was a business – Google – that fought back, in part because censorship threatened its business model.
Go Daddy, the world’s largest web registrar, also announced that it would no longer register domains in China because onerous government requirements forcing disclosure of customer identities made censorship easier.
Despite these efforts, China still leveraged access to its lucrative market to gain the upper hand because others in the Internet industry, such as Microsoft, did not follow Google’s lead.
Conversely, the one time China backed off was when it faced concerted pressure: it apparently abandoned its “Green Dam” censoring software when the industry, civil society, governments and China’s own Internet users all loudly protested. Even Google’s license to operate a search engine in China was renewed, casting further doubt on the idea that a public critique of China’s human rights practices would inevitably hurt business.
Ironically, some of the governments most opposed to using pressure to promote human rights have no qualms about using pressure to deflect human rights criticism.
China, for example, pulled out all the stops in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to suppress a report to the UN Security Council on the discovery of Chinese weaponry in Darfur despite an arms embargo. Sri Lanka did the same in an unsuccessful effort to quash a UN advisory panel on accountability for war crimes committed during its armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers.
China also mounted a major lobbying effort to prevent the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. When that failed, it tried unsuccessfully to discourage governments from attending the award ceremony in Norway. China made a similar effort to block a proposed UN commission of inquiry into war crimes committed in Burma.
But HRW saves its harshest criticism for the UN and the EU. The report excoriates “the failure of the expected champions of human rights to respond” to human rights violations around the world.
HRW says the use of “dialogue and cooperation in lieu of pressure has emerged with a vengeance at the UN, from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to many members of the Human Rights Council.”
In addition, the report says, “leading democracies of the global South, such as South Africa, India, and Brazil, have promoted quiet demarches as a preferred response to repression.”
Recent illustrations include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) tepid response to Burmese repression, the UN’s deferential attitude toward Sri Lankan wartime atrocities and India’s pliant policy toward Burma and Sri Lanka, according to the report.
“The UN Human Rights Council has been especially timid, with many countries refusing to vote for resolutions aimed at a particular country. In an extreme example, rather than condemn Sri Lanka for the brutal abuses against civilians in the final months of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers, the council congratulated Sri Lanka,” HRW said.
Although the EU’s partnership and cooperation agreements with other countries are routinely conditioned on basic respect for human rights, it has concluded a significant trade agreement and pursued a full-fledged partnership and cooperation agreement with Turkmenistan, a severely repressive government, without conditioning on human rights improvements or engaging in any serious efforts to secure improvements in advance, the report said.
The EU opened accession discussions with Serbia despite its failure to apprehend and surrender for trial Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime military leader and an internationally indicted war crimes suspect, an act that was regarded as a key benchmark for beginning the discussions. The EU also lifted sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan after security forces massacred hundreds in 2005 in the city of Andijan, even though the Uzbek government took no steps to fill any of the EU criteria required for lifting the sanctions.
“Dialogue and cooperation have their place, but the burden should be on the abusive government to show a genuine willingness to improve,” Roth said. “In the absence of demonstrated political will, public pressure should be the default response to repression.”
The report said that if members of the UN Human Rights Council want dialogue and cooperation to be effective in upholding human rights, they should limit use of these tools to governments that have demonstrated a political will to improve. “But whether out of calculation or cowardice, many Council members promote dialogue and cooperation as a universal prescription without regard to whether a government has the political will to curtail its abusive behavior,” HRW said.
These countries thus resist tests for determining whether a government’s asserted interest in cooperation is a ploy to avoid pressure or a genuine commitment to improvement – tests that might look to the government’s willingness to acknowledge its human rights failings, welcome UN investigators to examine the nature of the problem, prescribe solutions and embark upon reforms.
“The enemies of human rights enforcement oppose critical resolutions even on governments that clearly fail these tests, such as Burma, Iran, North Korea, Sri Lanka, and Sudan,” the report said.
“Similar problems arise at the UN General Assembly,” the report says. “As the Burmese military reinforced its decades-long rule with sham elections designed to give it a civilian facade, a campaign got under way to intensify pressure by launching an international commission of inquiry to examine the many war crimes committed in the country’s long-running armed conflict.”
A commission of inquiry, the report says, “would be an excellent tool for showing that such atrocities could no longer be committed with impunity. It would also create an incentive for newer members of the military-dominated government to avoid the worst abuses of the past.”
Yet some member states have refused to endorse a commission of inquiry on the “spurious grounds that it would not work without the cooperation of the Burmese junta.”
EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, in failing to embrace this tool, said, “Ideally, we should aim at ensuring a measure of cooperation from the national authorities.”
Similarly, a German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that, to help advance human rights in the country, it is “crucial to find some co-operation mechanism with the [Burmese] national authorities.”
Yet obtaining such cooperation from the Burmese military in the absence of further pressure is a pipe dream, the report says.
Another favorite form of cooperation is a formal intergovernmental dialogue on human rights, such as those that many governments conduct with China and that the EU maintains with a range of repressive countries, including the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
“Authoritarian governments understandably welcome these dialogues because they remove the spotlight from human rights discussions,” HRW says.
With such dialogues, the public, including domestic activists, is “left in the dark, as are most government officials outside the foreign ministry.”
But Western governments also often cite the existence of such dialogues as justification for not speaking concretely about human rights violations and remedies in more meaningful settings – as Sweden did, for example, during its EU presidency when asked why human rights had not featured more prominently at the EU-Central Asia ministerial conference.
The UN and EU are accused of “cowardice” for claiming to tackle human rights abuses in places like China or Uzbekistan through quiet dialogue and cooperation, the report said.
Highlighting its claim, the HRW report was issued in Brussels the same day the EU hosted controversial Uzbek President Islam Karimov despite protests from campaigners.
Roth, as leader of the New-York-based nongovernmental organization, was sharply critical of “the failure of the expected champions of human rights to respond” to violations in an introduction to the 600-page report covering 100-plus regimes.
Roth sees the fundamental error made by Ban and other leading voices was to place the accent on quiet diplomacy, which he says is often a euphemism for “other interests at stake.”
Roth cites a “tepid” response from Asian partners to repression in Myanmar. The report says the Burmese junta’s release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on November 23 was preceded by no significant steps on 2,100 other political prisoners.
The UN is criticized for adopting a “deferential” attitude towards Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, alongside Myanmar’s Than Shwe or Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir. The report said Ban placed “undue faith” in the impact of his corridor diplomacy.
The EU’s top diplomat, the much-criticized English baroness Ashton, is said to hide behind an “obsequious approach to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan” where large energy interests dominate trade and political links.
Ashton’s “quiet dialogue and cooperation often look like acquiescence” leading rights defenders to “sense indifference rather than solidarity,” Roth wrote in a column for the International Herald Tribune in advance of the report’s release.
Britain, France and Germany are all cited as appeasing Beijing.
The obsession with dialogue and cooperation is particularly intense at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where many of the members insist that the Council should practice “cooperation, not condemnation.”
The report says that, “A key form of pressure at the Council is the ability to send fact-finders to expose what abuses were committed and to hold governments accountable for not curtailing abuses. One important medium for these tools is a resolution aimed at a particular country or situation. Yet many governments on the Council eschew any country resolution designed to generate pressure (except in the case of the Council’s perennial pariah, Israel).”
“Near-universal cowardice,” meanwhile, marks efforts at confronting China’s “deepening crackdown on basic liberties,” as huge yuan investments – whether in African natural resources or in US and eurozone public debt – ensure silence is the preferred approach.
“The credibility of the EU as a force for human rights around the world also rests on its willingness to address human rights abuses by its own member states. With a record of discrimination and rising intolerance against migrants, Muslims, Roma, and others, inadequate access to asylum, and abusive counterterrorism measures, member states and EU institutions need to show greater political commitment to ensure that respect for human rights at home matches the EU’s rhetoric abroad,” the report charges.
The report cites recent examples of failure to exert pressure. These include the EU’s “obsequious approach” toward Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the West’s “soft reaction” to certain favored African autocrats, such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and the “near-universal cowardice in confronting China’s deepening crackdown on basic liberties.”
It adds that the most effective support for human rights in China in 2010 came from the Norwegian Nobel committee’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Prior to the recent visit of President Hu of China, there was concerted pressure from Obama’s left wing urging him to launch a full frontal attack on China’s human rights record.
To most of those on the left of the Democratic Party, Obama’s attack was far from “full frontal.” On the other hand, it was obvious that the American president intended to call attention to China’s pitiful human rights record and to keep the subject front and center while negotiations on other important issues were proceeding. The issue was now “on the table,” and was not going to be swept under the rug.
As a New York Times editorial noted, prior to Hu’s arrival, Obama “invited human rights advocates to the White House for a meeting on China.” Obama raised the issue from the very beginning of the state visit. It is reported that he also had a “very serious” discussion of human rights with Hu during a private dinner in the White House.
Many observers believe the president didn’t go far enough, but that he went as far as he could. But far fewer seem to believe Obama’s candor will have any impact on China’s domestic policies, at least not in the short term.