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Hillary Rodham Clinton Undercuts the State Department on Human Rights

Tuesday, March 10, 2009; A12

SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to devalue and undermine the U.S. diplomatic tradition of human rights advocacy. On her first foreign trip, to Asia, she was dismissive about raising human rights concerns with China's communist government, saying "those issues can't interfere" with economic, security or environmental matters. In last week's visit to the Middle East and Europe, she undercut the State Department's own reporting regarding two problematic American allies: Egypt and Turkey.

According to State's latest report on Egypt, issued Feb. 25, "the government's respect for human rights remained poor" during 2008 "and serious abuses continued in many areas." It cited torture by security forces and a decline in freedom of the press, association and religion. Ms. Clinton was asked about those conclusions during an interview she gave to the al-Arabiya satellite network in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Her reply contained no expression of concern about the deteriorating situation. "We issue these reports on every country," she said. "We hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement."

Ms. Clinton was then asked whether there would be any connection between the report and a prospective invitation to President Hosni Mubarak to visit Washington. "It is not in any way connected," she replied, adding: "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States." Ms. Clinton's words will be treasured by al-Qaeda recruiters and anti-American propagandists throughout the Middle East. She appears oblivious to how offensive such statements are to the millions of Egyptians who loathe Mr. Mubarak's oppressive government and blame the United States for propping it up.

The new secretary of state delivered a similar shock in Turkey to liberal supporters of press freedom, now under siege by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to the State Department report, "senior government officials, including Prime Minister Erdogan, made statements during the year strongly criticizing the press and media business figures, particularly following the publishing of reports on alleged corruption . . . connected to the ruling party." That was an understatement: In fact, Mr. Erdogan's government has mounted an ugly campaign against one of Turkey's largest media conglomerates, presenting it with a $500 million tax bill in a maneuver that has been compared to Russia's treatment of independent media.

Ms. Clinton was asked by a Turkish journalist what she told Mr. Erdogan when he complained about the State Department report. She answered: "Well, my reaction was that we put out this report every year, and I fully understand . . . no politician ever likes the press criticizing them." "Overall," she concluded, "we think that Turkey has made tremendous progress in freedom of speech and freedom of religion and human rights, and we're proud of that."

In fact, as the State Department has documented, Turkey is retreating on freedom of speech. In Egypt, the human rights situation also is getting worse rather than better. By minimizing those facts, Ms. Clinton is doing a disservice to her own department -- and sending a message to rulers around the world that their abuses won't be taken seriously by this U.S. administration.

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