Obama needs a stronger strategy on human rights

Thursday, January 6, 2011; 7:54 PM

Jackson Diehl's Jan. 3 op-ed column ["A critical silence"] critiquing the Obama administration's mixed messages on human rights was fine as far as it went: As Mr. Diehl said, failure to stick to a consistent message undermines the ability to advance human rights. But inconsistent rhetoric is only part of the problem. Despite some bold speeches asserting the centrality of human rights to U.S. national interests, the administration seems fundamentally not to believe that respect for human rights is a strategic imperative. That's a dangerous path that leads to unstable alliances with rights-violating regimes - Pakistan, Egypt - ultimately doomed by a lack of public support.

To reinvigorate its human rights agenda, the Obama administration must do more than get the rhetoric right; it has to have a strategy. Public condemnation may be a part of that strategy, but it is not a strategy in itself. The administration will have a key opportunity to demonstrate this at the U.S.-China Summit this month. President Obama should pursue a strategy to free Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents, and persuade the Chinese to cooperate in mitigating the risks of violence in Sudan around the upcoming referendum - including Chinese assistance in stopping the flow of arms to the region.

Elisa Massimino, Washington

The writer is president and chief executive of Human Rights First.

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