Skip to content

Obama Human Rights Policy

Is America Disinventing Human Rights?

 

udhr In his 1981 farewell speech, President Jimmy Carter said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.”

In a New York Times op-ed piece in June 2012, Carter cautioned, “At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”

Carter also raised a number of important questions: Has the U.S. abdicated its moral leadership in the arena of international human rights? Has the U.S. betrayed its core values by maintaining a detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and subjecting dozens of prisoners to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and leaving them without the “prospect of ever obtaining their freedom”? Does the arbitrary killing of a person suspected to be an enemy terrorist in a drone strike along with women and children who happen to be nearby comport with America’s professed commitment to the rule of law and human rights?

In 1948, the U.S. played a central leadership role in “inventing” the principal instrument which today serves as the bedrock foundation of modern human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, set a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” in terms of equality, dignity and rights. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the committee that drafted the UDHR. Eleanor remains an unsung heroine even though she was the mother of the modern global human rights movement. Without her, there would have been no UDHR; and without the UDHR, it is doubtful that the plethora of subsequent human rights conventions and regimes would have come into existence. Remarkably, she managed to mobilize, organize and proselytize human rights even though she had no legal training, diplomatic experience or bureaucratic expertise. She used her skills as political activist and advocate in the cause of freedom, justice and civil rights to work for global human rights.

Is America disinventing human rights?

It seems the U.S. is “disinventing” human rights through the pursuit of  double (triple, quadruple) standard of human rights policy wrapped in a cover of diplocrisy. In Africa, the U.S. has one set of standards for Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan. Mugabe and Bashir are classified as the nasty hombres of human rights in Africa. The U.S. has targeted both regimes for crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The U.S. has frozen the assets of Mugabe’s family and henchmen because the “Mugabe regime rules through politically motivated violence and intimidation and has triggered the collapse of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”

The U.S. calls “partners” equally brutal regimes in Africa which serve as its proxies. Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yuweri Museveni of Uganda and the deceased leader of the regime in Ethiopia are lauded as the “new breed of African leaders” and crowned “partners”. Uhuru Kenyatta, recently elected president of Kenya and a suspect under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity is said to be different than Bashir who faces similar ICC charges. In  2009,  Ambassador Susan E. Rice, then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demanded Bashir’s arrest and prosecution:  “The people of Sudan have suffered too much for too long, and an end to their anguish will not come easily. Those who committed atrocities in Sudan, including genocide, should be brought to justice.” No official U.S. statement on Uhuru’s ICC prosecution was issued.

The U.S. maintains excellent relations with  Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea who has been in power since 1979 because of that country’s oil reserves; but all of the oil revenues are looted by Obiang and his cronies. In 2011, the U.S. brought legal action in federal court  against Obiang’s son to seize corruptly obtained assets including a $40 million estate in Malibu, California  overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a luxury plane and a dozen super-sports cars worth millions of dollars.  The U.S. has not touched any of the other African Ali Babas and their forty dozen thieving cronies who have stolen billions and stashed their cash in U.S. and other banks.

Despite lofty rhetoric in support of the advancement of democracy and protection of human rights in Africa, the United States continues to subsidize and coddle African dictatorships that are as bad as or even worse than Mugabe’s. The U.S. currently provides substantial economic aid, loans, technical and security assistance to the repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere. None of these countries holds free elections, allow the operation of an independent press or free expression or abide by the rule of law. All of them are corrupt to the core, keep thousands of political prisoners, use torture and ruthlessly persecute their opposition. Yet they are deemed U.S. “partners”.

“Principled disengagement” as a way of reinventing an American human rights policy?

If the Obama Administration indeed has a global or African human rights policy, it must be a well-kept secret. In March 2013, Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor said American human rights policy is based on “principled engagement”: “We are going to go to the United Nations and join the Human Rights Council and we’re going to be part of it even though we recognize it doesn’t work… We’re going to engage with governments that are allies but we are also going to engage with governments with tough relationships and human rights are going to be  part of those discussions.” Second, the U.S. will follow “a single standard for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it applies to all including ourselves…” Third, consistent with President “Obama’s personality”, the Administration believes “change occurs from within and so a lot of  the emphasis… [will be] on how we can help local actors, change agents, civil society, labor activists, religious leaders trying to change their societies from within and amplify their own voices and give them the support they need…”

On August 14, according to Egyptian government sources, 525 protesters, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were killed and 3,717 injured at the hands of Egyptian military and security forces. It was an unspeakably horrifying massacre of protesters exercising their right to peaceful expression of grievances.

On August 15, President Obama criticized the heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful protesters with the usual platitudes. “The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians.” His message to the Egyptian people was somewhat disconcerting in light of the massacre. “America cannot determine the future of Egypt. We do not take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside Egypt to blame the United States.”

In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen”, “History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality… Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans [citizens and their communities driving change], and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

President Obama has a clear choice in Egypt between “those who use coups to stay in power” and the people of Egypt peacefully protesting in the streets. Now he says, “We don’t take sides…” By “not taking sides”,  it seems he has taken sides with Egypt’s strongmen who “use coups to stay in power”.  So much for “principled engagement”!

Obama reassured the Egyptian military that the U.S. does not intend to end or suspend its decades-old partnership with them. He cautioned the military that “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual while civilians are being killed in the streets.”  He indicated his disapproval of the imposition of “martial law” but made no mention of the manifest military coup that had ousted Morsy. He obliquely referred to it as a “military intervention”. He made a gesture of  “action” cancelling a symbolic military exercise with the Egyptian army. There will be no suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt and no other sanctions will be imposed on the Egyptian military or government.

I am not clear what Obama’s human rights policy of “principled engagement” actually means. But I have a lot of questions about it: Does it mean moral complacency and tolerance of the crimes against humanity of African dictators for the sake of the war on terror and oil? Is it a euphemism for abdication of American ideals on the altar of political expediency? Does it mean overlooking and excusing the crimes of  ruthless dictators and turning a blind eye to their bottomless  corruption? Does “principled engagement” mean  allowing dictators to suck at the teats of American taxpayers to satisfy their insatiable aid addiction while they brutalize their people?

The facts of  Obama’s “principled engagement” tell a different story. In May 2010,  after the ruling party in Ethiopia declared it had won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament, the U.S. demonstrated its “principled engagement” by issuing a Statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments” and promised to “work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.” There is no evidence that the U.S. did anything to “strengthen democratic institutions and open political dialogue to become a reality for the Ethiopian people.”

When two ICC indicted suspects in Kenya (Kenyatta and Ruto) won the presidency in Kenya a few months ago, the U.S. applied its “principled engagement” in the form of a robust defense of the suspects. Johnnie Carson, the former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said the ICC indictments of  Bashir and Uhuru/Ruto are different. “I don’t want to make a comparison with Sudan in its totality because Sudan is a special case in many ways.” What makes Bashir and Sudan different, according to Carson, is the fact that Sudan is on the list of countries that support terrorism and Bashir and his co-defendants are under indictment for the genocide in Darfur. Since “none of that applies to Kenya,” according to Carson, it appears the U.S. will follow a different policy.

President Obama says the U.S. will maintain its traditional partnership with Egypt’s military, Egypt’s “strongmen”. At the onset of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011,  Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on that popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” word (dictator as in Hosni Mubarak) to describe events in Egypt then. Today Obama cannot bring himself to say the “C” word (as in Egyptian military coup).

Obama is in an extraordinary historical position as a person of color to advance American ideals and values throughout the world in convincing and creative ways. But he cannot advance these ideals and values through a hollow notion of “principled engagement.”

Rather, he must adopt a policy of  “principled disengagement” with African dictators. That does not mean isolationism or a hands off approach to human rights. By “principled disengagement” I mean a policy and policy outcome that is based on measurable human rights metrics. Under a policy of “principled disengagement”, the U.S. would establish clear, attainable and measurable human rights policy objectives in its relations with African dictatorships. The policy would establish minimum conditions of human rights compliance. For instance, the U.S. could set some basic criteria for the conduct of free and fair elections, press and individual freedoms, limits on arbitrary arrests and detentions, prevention of extrajudicial punishments, etc. Using its annual human rights assessments, the U.S. could make factual determinations on the extent to which it will engage or disengage with a particular regime. “Partnership” status and the benefits that come with it will be reserved to those regimes that have good and improving records on specific human rights measures. Regimes that steal elections, win elections by 99.6 percent, engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions and other human rights violations would be denied “partnership” status and denied aid, loans and technical assistance. Persistent violators of human rights would be given a compliance timetable to improve their records and provided appropriate assistance to achieve specific human rights goals. If regimes persist in a pattern and practice of human rights violations, the U.S. could raise the stakes and impose economic and diplomatic sanctions.

The ‘‘Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007’’ contained many important statutory provisions that could serve as a foundation for “principled disengagement”.

Obama’s “principled engagement” seems to be a justification for expediency at the cost of American ideals. Until he decides to stand for principle, instead of standing behind the rhetoric of “principled engagement”, he will continue to find himself on a tightrope of moral, legal and political ambiguity. The U.S. cannot “condemn” and “deplore” its way out of its human rights obligations or global leadership role. Yes, the U.S. must take sides! It must take a stand either with the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world or the human rights abusers of the world.  If Obama wants to save the world from strongmen with boots and in designer suits with briefcases full of cash, he should pursue a policy of “principled disengagement”. But he should start by reflecting on the words he spoke during his first inauguration speech:

Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/

www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

http://www.ecadforum.com/Amharic/archives/category/al-mariam-amharic

http://ethioforum.org/?cat=24

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/al.mariam

Twitter:  Al [email protected]

Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: This is the first installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I explore the human rights rhetoric in U.S. foreign policy and argue that lofty talk without action has emboldened Ethiopia’s dictators to ply their usual trade with greater audacity and made the U.S. a silent partner and a deaf-mute witness to their crimes. I urge the U.S. to back up its big human rights talk with big human rights action in Ethiopia.

Has the Mighty Eagle Turned Clucking Chicken?

Teddy “The Rough Rider” Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States, had many faults, but one of them was not inability to distinguish between talk and action. The old warhorse understood that “Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.” Roosevelt believed the U.S. should “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Exactly a century later, appeasement seems to be the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy, at least in dealing with the world’s thugs operating gangsterdoms disguised as governments. The new American slogan appears to be: “Talk big about human rights and watch from the sidelines with folded arms as thugs and gangsters clamp their peoples’ heads in steel vises, punch them in the gut with clenched fists and hang, draw and quarter them behind closed prison walls.” Has the mighty eagle turned clucking chicken?

Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls

In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama extended an open hand to the world’s thugs clad in the robes of state: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen” artfully that they have been driving on the wrong side of history for so long that they are headed straight for history’s dustbin:

Development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential…. History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end… Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans [citizens and their communities driving change], and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.

In July 2010, almost exactly a year to the week of President Obama’s Ghana speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech in Poland on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Community of Democracies (an intergovernmental organization of democracies and democratizing countries with a stated commitment to strengthening and deepening democratic norms and practices worldwide) and singled out Ethiopia along with Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others to warn the world that “we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.” She cautioned that the “walls are closing in” on civic organizations, human rights advocates and other nongovernmental organizations that press for social change and shine a light on governments’ shortcomings. She pointed out: “Last year, Ethiopia imposed a series of strict new rules on NGOs. Very few groups have been able to re-register under this new framework, particularly organizations working on sensitive issues like human rights.”

In December 2009, Secretary Clinton delivered a speech in which she set out the basic human rights principles undergirding U.S. foreign policy in the age of thugs and gangsters masquerading as political leaders:

Throughout history and in our own time, there have been those who violently deny that truth. Our mission is to embrace it, to work for lasting peace through a principled human rights agenda, and a practical strategy to implement it…. [There are] many who hold power and who construct their position against an “other” – another tribe or religion or race or gender or political party. Standing up against that false sense of identity and expanding the circle of rights and opportunities to all people – advancing their freedoms and possibilities – is why we do what we do…. We stand for democracy not because we want other countries to be like us, but because we want all people to enjoy the consistent protection of the rights that are naturally theirs… But it is crucial that we clarify what we mean when we talk about democracy, because democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly… Human rights, democracy, and development are not three separate goals with three separate agendas…. We have to tackle all three simultaneously with a commitment that is smart, strategic, determined, and long-term. We should measure our success by asking this question: Are more people in more places better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions? (Emphasis added.)

Secretary Clinton outlined the four pillars of the Obama Administration’s approach to “putting our principles into action”. She declared that U.S. policy is founded on “a commitment to human rights [which] starts with universal standards and with holding everyone accountable to those standards, including ourselves.” Accountability means “that governments take responsibility by putting human rights into law and embedding them in government institutions; by building strong, independent courts, competent and disciplined police and law enforcement.” Second, “we must be pragmatic and agile in pursuit of our human rights agenda – not compromising on our principles, but doing what is most likely to make them real. And we will use all the tools at our disposal, and when we run up against a wall, we will not retreat with resignation or recriminations, or repeatedly run up against the same well, but respond with strategic resolve…” Third, Clinton pledged to “support change driven by citizens and their communities. The project of making human rights a human reality cannot be just one for governments. It requires cooperation among individuals and organizations within communities and across borders.” Finally, she announced the U.S. “will widen [its] focus. We will not forget that positive change must be reinforced and strengthened where hope is on the rise, and we will not ignore or overlook places of seemingly intractable tragedy and despair.”

“Are more Ethiopians Better Able to Exercise Their Universal Rights and Live Up to Their Potential Because of U.S. Actions?”

Secretary Clinton said the acid test for the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy is whether “more people in more places are better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions?” By this measure, U.S. policy in Ethiopia has been a total, unmitigated and dismal failure. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable. Meles Zenawi, the poster child of African dictatorships, has not only “closed the walls”, he has also sealed the roof and nailed shut the doors and windows on Ethiopian society. Opposition leaders are threatened, intimidated, jailed and killed. Civic society organizations are criminalized, decertified and cutoff from funding sources. Political prisoners fill the country’s jails. The country’s first and only female political party leader in history, Birtukan Midekssa, remains imprisoned for life on the ridiculous charge that she denied receiving a pardon in 2007 for her kangaroo court conviction on trumped up charges the year before. Ethiopia ranks at the top of the most corrupt countries in the world despite billions in U.S. and Western aid. In the 2010 Failed States Index, Ethiopia is ranked 17 out of 177 countries (Somalia is ranked #1 failed state). There is no freedom of speech or of the press. Journalists and human rights advocates are harassed and arrested. Independent newspapers are shuttered. Even the one-hour daily radio broadcasting service of the Voice of America (VOA) has been jammed by Zenawi’s explicit orders for the past several months in a flagrantly provocative act. Zenawi accused the VOA (the official international radio and television broadcasting service of the United States government broadcasting in 44 languages), and by implication the United States Government, as the voice of hate and genocide in Ethiopia. Zenawi said the VOA has “copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda.” According to Zenawi, the VOA has become the VOI (Voice of Interhamwe)

As to the third pillar of American foreign policy (“change driven by citizens, civic society organizations and their communities”), the evidence is flabbergasting. According to a recent report of the “Ministry of Justice” of Ethiopia, there were a “total of 3,522 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) registered before the country introduced the new law, [and] only 1,655 have so far been able to reregister while the rest (nearly 50%) vanished.”[1] The “Ministry” further reported that “out of the total 1,655 NGOs, which so far are able to be reregistered, 218 have changed their names while 17 shifted from their previous objectives to other objectives.”

Did U.S. actions help promote free and fair elections? Zenawi’s allied-party won 99.6 percent of the parliamentary seats in May 2010. Zenawi chafed publicly at the loss of the 0.4 percent and pledged resolutely: “I would like to confirm to those who did not vote for us that we will work hard to look into your reasons for not voting for us with the view to learning from them and correcting any shortcomings on our part. We will work day and night to obtain your support in the next election.” No doubt, in 2015, the vote will be 100 percent for Zenawi and his party! The European Union Elections Observation Mission, The White House and the U.S. State Department were aghast at the results and bleated: “The elections fell short of international commitments.” They could not quite bring themselves to say the “R” word. Rigged!

Are more Ethiopians today better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of U.S. actions? (Just a rhetorical question.)

Talk is Cheap When a Toothless (Paper) Tiger Talks?

Some people cynically and pejoratively characterize U.S. human rights declarations in its foreign policy as hypocritical “cheap talk.” They argue that the U.S. would rather cluck about democracy, freedom and human rights in the abstract than do something concrete to help protect it in societies suffering under dictatorships. I disagree. American talk is not cheap because America talks with its taxpayers’ hard earned dollars. Since 1991, American taxpayers have shelled out $3.2 billion in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia.[2] Zenawi’s regime has received $26 billion in development aid from the West during the same time, the lion’s share coming from the wallets and purses of hard working American taxpayers.[3] Without American tax dollars bankrolling the dictatorship in Ethiopia, it could not last even a single day.

I will concede that American talk is cheap for the dictators in Ethiopia. For them, America is all bark, and no bite. The lofty words of President Obama and Secretary Clinton go in one ear and exit clean through the other. The U.S. can moan and groan, gripe and grouse about human rights violations in Ethiopia, but its bark is no more threatening than the growl of a toothless and clawless (paper) tiger. “They ain’t gonna do diddley-squat. Let the Americans talk until they turn blue in the face,” the dictators cackle. But America’s color is not just blue; it is also red and white. Ethiopia’s dictators see only the blue which signifies American vigilance, patience and perseverance against injustice. They don’t know what the red and white signify. It time to let them know the real meaning of the colors in the stars and stripes, President Obama! And if I may add, Sir, it is more effective to “speak softly and carry a big stick” when dealing with Africa’s tin pot dictators.

FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA

[1] http://www.africanews.com/site/1867_NGOs_vanish_from_Ethiopia/list_messages/33257
[2] http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PDACN200.pdf
[3] http://www.eastafricaforum.net/2010/04/23/cruel-ethiopia/