Saturday, April 16, 2016

Obama and human rights - Is 'soft power' working?

Obama and human rights: Is 'soft power' working?
By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer APRIL 15, 2016

WASHINGTON — A new and downbeat assessment of human rights trends
worldwide is raising questions about whether the Obama administration's
approach to foreign policy is making the situation worse.

The State Department's annual human rights report issued this week
suggests that respect for human rights deteriorated in many parts of the
world last year. The report asserts that "in every part of the world, we
see an accelerating trend by both state and non-state actors" to commit
increasingly grave rights abuses.

Critics say President Obama's signature dialogue with adversaries is not
delivering rights improvements. Iran is cited as a case in point, as is
Cuba – where, by some key human-rights measures, conditions have
worsened since the United States and Cuba normalized relations last year.

Recommended: How much do you know about Iran? Take our quiz to find out.
Moreover, some foreign policy analysts say that, despite Mr. Obama's
lofty goals on human rights, his disengagement with some longtime
partners has allowed them to deepen their authoritarianism. Egypt,
highlighted in the report for worsening human rights conditions, is a
case in point.

The debate over how best to move countries away from repressive
practices and promote respect for human rights has many sides. But
strong US leadership is an essential element, either through more
aggressive policy or at least a firmer tone, many experts said at a
foreign policy forum this week.

The concern is that Obama administration has shied away for fear of
undermining attempts to reach out to former enemies.

"This administration seems to believe … we can't say mean things,
they'll walk away," said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council
on Foreign Relations in Washington, at the forum held by the Foundation
for the Defense of Democracies Wednesday. "They're not going to walk
away, of course we can say mean things."

In issuing the State Department's 2015 human rights report Wednesday,
Secretary of State John Kerry underlined the danger of nations that
abuse human rights. "Governments that deny political liberty forfeit
public trust, thereby opening the door to civil unrest of all sorts,
including violent extremism," he said.

But the US is shirking its responsibility to hold countries like Egypt
to account, says Mr. Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser
to President George W. Bush.

"The United States should be much more critical" of the direction Egypt
is taking under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, said Abrams, calling the
Sisi regime "far more repressive than [President Hosni] Mubarak's was."

"We're a making a mistake if we invest our trust in a regime that is not

The State Department report likewise faults Egypt, which receives
billions of dollars in US aid annually, for harassing and shutting down
human rights organizations and for restricting the travel of political
activists and human rights advocates.

International human rights groups charge the US with staying mostly
silent on Egypt's repressive slide. The reason, they say: The US has
sympathy for Mr. Sisi's tough fight with violent Islamist extremists.

Yet neither is Obama's policy of engagement with adversaries delivering
improvements, critics say.

The State Department report singles out Iran for a deteriorating human
rights environment, noting "severe restrictions" on basic freedoms
including speech, the press, religion, and assembly. In particular, the
report condemns Iran's "escalating use of capital punishment,"
especially in cases of crimes that fall below "the threshold of most
serious" or are committed by juveniles.

The pattern of US appeasement began well before the unveiling of the
Iran nuclear deal last year, critics say. In 2009, the administration
said little when the Iranian government snuffed out a fledgling
democracy movement blossoming around national elections.

That "silence," critics add, has only abetted Iran's hardliners, who
have cracked down on any sign of political dissent and imposed
increasingly repressive measures, even as the country moved toward the
nuclear agreement.

"Let's get back to a more aggressive posture" with Iran, said Mark
Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of
Democracies, at the Wednesday forum. The US should not ignore Tehran's
"use of repression" but instead pursue means, including sanctions, to
influence the Iranian government's behavior, he said.

Some human rights advocates see a similar pattern of worsening
conditions in Cuba in conjunction with its diplomatic opening to the US.
Dissident rights organizations in Cuba say political detentions
increased last year compared with 2013.

Supporters of Obama's policy suggest that the arc of change on human
rights cannot be measured over such short time spans. Obama's
foreign-policy approach is changing paradigms, slowly but profoundly,
they add.

"Since Raúl Castro became president, more Cubans have been able to open
their own businesses, travel freely abroad, openly practice their
religion, buy or sell their houses, purchase a cell phone and a personal
computer, and more openly express criticism of Cuba's contemporary
reality in blogs, books, magazines, music, and art," wrote Willian
Leogrande, coauthor of "Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of
Negotiations between Washington and Havana" in Foreign Policy after
Obama's Cuba visit. "These are all threads in the tapestry of human
rights, and Obama's opening to Cuba has strengthened them."

Obama has largely repudiated the "regime change" approach of President
George W. Bush. Aside from his support for a European-led effort to
displace former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi – on the auspices of
preventing a genocide – Obama has preferred softer forms of power. The
idea is to pressure governments, friend and foe alike, to improve their
respect for human rights.

Kerry reiterated that approach toward Cuba Wednesday. Both he and Obama
have used their talks with Cuban leaders to urge them to allow more of
the "political openness" Cubans desire, he said.

"The only question is how long it will take for the officials in Havana
to catch up to the population."

Source: Obama and human rights: Is 'soft power' working? -

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