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Human Rights Activists Troubled by Administration's Approach

By Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Obama administration has backed away from overt expressions of support for human rights and democracy in favor of a more subtle approach, worrying advocates who say that the issues are being given short shrift as President Obama seeks to rebuild relations with allies and reach out to adversaries.

Although Obama moved quickly to announce the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, drawing praise from human rights activists, many say other actions by the administration have been troubling. Administration officials have suggested that sanctions against human rights pariahs Burma and Sudan could be eased, that concerns over China's treatment of Tibetans and dissidents should take a back seat to issues such as climate change, and that the United States might once again grant Egypt's autocratic government veto power over the disbursement of U.S. funds to nongovernmental groups.

"They need to be careful here that they don't set a pattern they will regret later on," said Jennifer Windsor, a former Clinton administration official who is executive director of Freedom House, a group that supports democracy activists. "There are some good people in the administration, but the instinct of abandoning everything President Bush has stood for has done a disservice."

Administration officials acknowledge they have approached the issue of human rights differently but deny that there has been a reduction in commitment. Instead, they say, they are first seeking to restore U.S. credibility on the issue by acknowledging U.S. failings and then pushing for progress on human rights and democracy.

In a speech last month in Istanbul, for instance, Obama noted his decision on Guantanamo and the fact that until recently the United States "made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote." Then he urged Turkish authorities to bolster the rule of law and reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary, a step that U.S. officials say would ease religious animosity.

Former President George W. Bush made promoting "freedom" and "ending tyranny" around the globe one of the central themes of his administration. But, in the view of Obama advisers, Bush undermined that effort with an often-strident tone and an inconsistent application.

Human rights advocates now fear the pendulum may be swinging too far the other way, with the criticism of Obama from the right particularly intense.

"The most striking thing about the first steps in foreign policy of this administration is its sharp turning of its back on the issues of human rights and democracy and the victims of the abuse of human rights and the absence of democracy," said Joshua Muravchik, whose 1991 book, "Exporting Democracy," helped form the basis of the neoconservative policies of the past eight years.

Muravchik and others say Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have gone out of their way to play down concerns about human rights and democratic movements in favor of an approach to other countries and their leaders that emphasizes cooperation on issues such as containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Just before visiting Beijing in February on her first trip overseas, Clinton said that pressing China on human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." Then, while traveling in the Middle East in March, Clinton appeared to play down human rights issues in Egypt and Turkey that had been raised in recent State Department reports. Clinton later tried to repair the damage by declaring that "a mutual and collective commitment to human rights is [as] important to bettering our world as our efforts on security, global economics, energy, climate change and other pressing issues."

Lorne W. Craner, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights under Bush, said he thinks Obama and Clinton had strong records on human rights before they came into office. But he said he has been surprised at the administration's initial steps.

"I am finding these guys very reactive and not creative. You can't just offer hope to Castro, Chávez and Mubarak," Craner said, referring to the leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Egypt. "You have to offer hope to others" toiling in those countries for greater liberties.

Administration officials counter that they have a consistent vision of how to emphasize human rights in international discourse, which includes taking on tough issues but in a respectful and less rhetorical manner. "Any fair reading of this set of issues over the course of a broad sweep of time underscores that it's a fundamental issue for the president," said Denis McDonough, director of strategic communications at the National Security Council.

During a November 2007 Democratic primary debate, Obama eloquently insisted that American security is not more important than human rights, saying the two aims were "complementary." As Obama put it, "We've got to understand that, if we simply prop up antidemocratic practices, that that feeds the sense that America is only concerned about us and that our fates are not tied to these other folks."

But outside activists say they have a hard time perceiving such a balance, at least at this early juncture.

Many human rights activists have been shocked at the administration's apparent willingness to consider easing sanctions on Burma and Sudan. The Obama presidential campaign was scornful of Bush's handling of the killings in Sudan's Darfur region, which Bush labeled as genocide, but since taking office, the administration has been caught flat-footed by Sudan's recent ousting of international humanitarian organizations.

Obama appointed a special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, who has alarmed activists by telling them privately that he is looking at easing sanctions imposed by Bush and at whether Sudan should be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. "He thinks that to keep banging on Khartoum is not the right way," said Omar Ismail, a Darfurian refugee and policy activist who has met with Gration three times. "He said he wants to build rapport with Khartoum."

Gration did not respond to a request for comment, and administration officials refused to say whether lifting sanctions was under consideration.

Eric Reeves, an activist who closely watches Sudan, said, "The real situation on the ground is extremely grim, and getting worse in many places. The Obama people must know this, which makes the decision to go the accommodationist route even more bewildering."

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