When President Obama took office, he vowed to repair the damage done to America’s moral standing on the global stage. You may have hoped that human rights would become an organizing principle of our foreign policy. That the U.S. would finally try to engage pariah states like Iran and North Korea, or that Obama’s presidency would elevate the voices of grassroots movements in economic and environmental policy discussions. In 2011, you’ve probably either lowered your expectations or discarded your hopes.
About a year ago, Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, anticipated the impending disappointment, warning in an op-ed, "President Obama recognizes the importance of redeeming America’s reputation on human rights after the dark Bush years. But it will take more than impressive rhetoric to succeed. Words must be followed by deeds."
Of course, the president still had lofty words this week when he welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington.
"History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are successful and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being," Obama said at a White House ceremony Wednesday.
But a close look at the administration’s human rights record suggests a president hasn’t yet earned the moral standing to deliver such inspiring words, to the Chinese or anyone else. While the administration has made progress on some human rights fronts, it hasn’t made Roth’s connection between word and deed. And with a resurgent Republican Party in Congress, a roiling economic crisis and an increasingly restive electorate, you can expect fewer words, never mind deeds, in the next two years.
Human Rights in Wartime
Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, it’s difficult to imagine Obama making any gains on human rights amid the chaos haunting the Pentagon’s ever-expanding dominion.
Obama’s new Afghanistan timetable–drawing down troops starting this year with an "aspirational" goal of pulling out by 2014, plus continued "support" for local authorities indefinitely thereafter–looks more and more like exactly the kind of devastating, open-ended occupation that the White House said it would avoid back in 2009.
The one thing that might counter the momentum of the Afghanistan war is its price tag, since the new timetable is projected to add at least $125 billion in war spending to the deficit, according to the Christian Science Monitor. At the same time, the current anxiety over the federal budget also means fewer resources to devote to humanitarian aid and social programs abroad.
The other no-man’s land in the war on terror may be completely off the radar in Congress in 2011. Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay has quietly lapsed, and the administration has no more political capital to spend fighting Congress on detention policy.
Meanwhile, to many observers, the latest Pentagon reports on "progress" in our terror campaigns describe a desperate downward spiral into targeted killings of "insurgent leaders" and diminishing prospects for constructive diplomacy. John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Colorlines:
Rather than attempt to take these targeted individuals into custody, and be criticized for rendition to a third country or treatment during detention, the Obama administration has decided simply to assassinate them. It has been able to continue this policy in part because it hasn’t come under the kind of criticism that the Bush administration endured for its policies on torture and rendition.
In a sense, then, Obama’s credibility as a defender of human rights has in fact offered cover for increased brutality.
Glimmers of Hope
Though hypocrisy is a famous hallmark of U.S. foreign policy, Obama’s overtures about restoring America’s moral standing has by turns raised expectations and courted disappointment.
Last September, Obama declared at a U.N. conference, "The strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies and open governments." But in recent months, the administration has cracked down on peace activists; started devising a constitutionally dubious scheme to try alleged terrorists in a separate court system; stood by as a coup upended democracy in Honduras; and propped up a dysfunctional regime in Afghanistan.
Still, there have been a few glimmers of idealism. This past week, the White House expressed restrained support for the popular uprising in Tunisia, which ousted a U.S.-backed dictatorship and stunned officials with its secular pro-democracy fervor.
Last year, the U.S. submitted to an unprecedented review by the U.N. Human Rights Council, allowing civil society groups to air criticism on an international platform.
Obama also declared support of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in December–departing at least symbolically from the Bush administration’s rejection of the non-binding accord in 2007. However, advocates for native communities are wary that the administration’s proclamation does not necessarily mean the principles of the document, including guarantees of sovereignty and land rights, will ever be implemented.
Nikke Alex, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, said she was skeptical about the administration’s professed support for indigenous people on the global level while ignoring the issue at home.
"Why are they pushing for human rights in another country when they’re not even adhering to it in their own country?" Alex asked Colorlines, noting that tribal communities in the U.S. face the same discrimination and threats to sovereignty that lie at the heart of the declaration.
Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors
Long before the U.S. launched its crusade against terrorism across the Atlantic, it incubated its neo-imperialist model in its backyard. And despite the high hopes that followed the 2008 election, the rising powers in the Western Hemisphere, many of them left-leaning governments, are disillusioned that Obama has not changed the power dynamic between the U.S. and Latin America.
The White House is pressing forward with trade deals that could further erode economic and social rights in the region. While in Haiti, Bill Clinton’s vow to "build back better" still rings hollow, as the emerging "recovery" plan appears to resurrect the failed neoliberal development policies that paved the way for Haiti’s current crises.
Mexico is another unredeemed tragedy. As President Obama has militarized the southern border, he has pressed forward with a violent anti-drug strategy that has left thousands dead at the hands of drug lords and police. Failing to see the mass migration to the North as a human rights issue, he has also intensified immigration restrictions that breed exploitation both in Mexico and in U.S. communities.
In a letter demanding that the U.S. stop funding the failed anti-drug strategies, a coalition of rights groups stated last fall:
Documentation exists of killings, torture, beatings and gender-based violence committed by security forces, including the cases of Atenco, Ciudad Juarez and repression of labor unions. The U.S. provision of lethal aid and training to these same security forces violates our principles as a nation, tarnishes our reputation and implicates the U.S. government in serious and widespread human rights abuses.
U.S.-Africa policy, however, is perhaps the arena where Obama’s parallels and contrasts with Bush are most clearly displayed.
While both administrations spurred international action on conflict in Sudan and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Obama has disappointed those who hoped his 2009 visit to Ghana would usher in a more enlightened posture toward Africa.
In the name of counterterrorism, Obama has refused to hold allies accountable for using child soldiers, despite a Bush-era law blocking U.S. funding for nations who do so, and perpetuated the militarization of Africa through Washington’s Africa Command (AFRICOM). Those conflicts in turn overshadow the lesser known but no less critical issues of mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ruthless land grabs across the continent by foreign investors, and the demonization of LGBT communities in Uganda.
The sense of urgency surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis too has waned: Last month advocacy groups were outraged that White House’s 2010 budget for global HIV/AIDS programs actually decreased planned funding in several areas.
Our Defining Rights Fight: Climate Justice
The crises that have beset African nations may soon be aggravated by the defining human rights struggle of this generation. The social and environmental threats of climate change have galvanized grassroots activists across the Global South to connect racial, health, economic and gender equity under the banner of environmental justice. Although Obama is lightyears ahead of his predecessor in terms of understanding the gravity of the problem, the stagnant talks at the Copenhagen and Cancun summits showed that only a groundswell of public pressure can overcome the entrenched power of polluting industries.
Yifat Susskind of the gender-focused human rights group MADRE connected health and environmental challenges as twin casualties of political inertia:
As daunting as AIDS and climate change may be, the biggest obstacles to combating these threats are not financial or technical. The biggest challenge is getting the world’s powerful people to be accountable [for] crises that mainly affect the poor. We know what needs to be done, and so does President Obama. What’s missing is the political will from world leaders.
We see the complacency playing out this week with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s summit with Obama. The most the leaders can expect from the talks is a mutual pledge to keep up the flow of trade and capital, while avoiding uncomfortable chafing between their respective geopolitical agendas. China’s abysmal human rights record might get a brief mention, but Obama, at the helm of a declining superpower, lacks the political leverage, and will, to press hard on the issue.
The Obama administration could earn back some moral influence by adopting a multilateral approach toward universal rights, encouraging political freedom alongside sustainable development, self-determination and government accountability. But for now, the White House has no incentive to redeem the hope many social movements invested in it two years ago. Obama’s record on human rights shows that even a relatively clear-minded leadership won’t stray from the established course until pushed from below.