Assessing the Obama Administration on Human Rights
ASSESSING THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
HON. FRANK R. WOLF
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Mr. WOLF. Madam Speaker, a May 5 Washington Post article opened with
these words: "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."
I join the ranks of those who are deeply troubled by the trajectory
of this administration on human rights.
In a February visit to Asia, Secretary of State Clinton plainly
indicated that human rights would not be a priority in her engagement
with China. She said, "We pretty much know what they [the Chinese
government] are going to say" on human rights issues.
With that logic, the administration will rarely find it advisable to
raise human rights concerns with any country, particularly the worst
Clinton went on, "We have to continue to press them. But our
pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic
crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."
Human rights organizations were dismayed. How had impassioned
advocacy for the dignity of every person been relegated to a position
of mere interference? And this in spite of Obama campaign promises to
"be frank with the Chinese" and "press them to respect human
Following Secretary Clinton's Asia comments and subsequent remarks
during a visit to the Middle East where she indicated that Egypt's
abuses would not negatively affect our bilateral relations, the
Washington Post editorialized on March 11, "Ms. Clinton is doing a
disservice to her own department--and sending the wrong message to
rulers around the world that their abuses won't be taken seriously by
this U.S. administration."
Against this backdrop, President Obama in April moved to lift
restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans absent any
commitment by the Castro brothers to release even one of the hundreds
of political prisoners who languish in jails.
Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba cautioned, "Lifting the
travel ban means the
most hostile elements of the Cuban government will get an injection of
our currency . . . The tourist industry is controlled and staffed by
the Cuban government. If Washington wants to transfer dollars to the
Cuban military, that's one way of doing it."
Cuba is still characterized by our own State Department as a
"totalitarian state." This year's National Endowment for Democracy's
(NED) annual Democracy Award recently went to five courageous leaders
of Cuba's pro-democracy movement. The Washington Post editorial page on
June 25 pointed out that in both the Bush and Clinton administrations,
NED awardees were given either an audience with the president or a
statement of support. Not so this year.
According to the Post, the White House issued a "hastily drafted
statement" only after the paper inquired about the president's
silence. These brave Cuban democracy activists are, in the words of the
Post's editorial page, "hoping that the American president will focus
his policy on supporting them. Yet for now, Mr. Obama's diplomacy is
clearly centered on their oppressors."
Or consider Sudan. During the campaign, when asked about Darfur,
Barack Obama said, "We can't say 'never again' and then allow it to
happen again. And, as President of the United States, I don't intend to
. . . turn a blind eye to slaughter." He also spoke of "ratcheting up
Now, almost six months into the administration, the State Department
is still conducting a much vaunted "comprehensive review" of U.S.-
Sudan policy. Nothing concrete has emerged. The little that has leaked
out in press reports is disturbing.
The administration appears divided at the highest levels over whether
genocide is even still taking place in Darfur. Furthermore, they are
making overtures to Khartoum which are, at best, naive.
As recently as June 18, The Post reported that Special Envoy Gration
"has advocated easing some American sanctions and upgrading U.S.
diplomatic relations with Sudan's government to induce cooperation."
And more recently on the Iranian elections, while the president's
tone has toughened a bit in the face of increased pressure and
bloodshed, his initial response was painfully muted. Asked about
whether there was "any red line" his administration wouldn't cross
where the "offer [to talk to Iran's leaders] will be shut off," the
president simply replied, "We're waiting to see how it plays itself
A July 6 National Review Online posting on the plight of seven
imprisoned Baha'i leaders set to go on trial later this week, pointed
out that a "restrained approach" to human rights advocacy "may not
work for the seven imprisoned Baha'i in Iran, who face trial on July
11. The Iranian regime needs to understand that such blatant religious
persecution has consequences. Silence may convince the Iranian
leadership that they can get away with murder."
The Baha'is are not the only minority faith in the region under
duress. In the president's much anticipated Cairo speech, he only made
fleeting reference to Egypt's Coptic Christians, saying that
"religious diversity must be upheld." But far more than diversity is
A June 26 press release by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom following recent reported attacks on
Egyptian Copts describes the pattern of persecution endured by this
community. The commission indicated that "initial reports say that
state security services did little to prevent the violence from
occurring. This repeats the established pattern that security services
do not adequately protect Christian citizens in many localities. For
all Christians in Egypt, government permission is required to build a
new church or repair an existing one, and the approval process for
church construction is time-consuming and inflexible. Even some permits
that have been approved cannot be acted upon because of interference by
the state security services at both the local and national levels."
A May 7 Washington Post editorial described the Obama administration
as rushing to "embrace Egypt's 81-year-old strongman," in reference
to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The editorial went on to say that
the administration is retreating from raising human rights abuses and
that "the pullback is not only rhetorical." Funding for democracy
promotion in Egypt, reportedly at the request of the U.S. ambassador to
Egypt, was initially cut from $50 million to $20 million this year.
That number has since been bumped by $5 million as the funding bill has
moved through the committee process--but even with that increase, the
funding amounts to half of the previous year's figure. Given that
millions of dollars in unconditioned foreign aid has gone to the
Egyptian government in the years following the Camp David accords, this
slash in civil society funding is an embarrassment.
One of the darkest places on the globe is North Korea. More than
200,000 North Koreans--including children--are being held in political
prison camps. It is estimated that between 400,000 and one million
people have died in these camps, having been worked to death or starved
A June 16 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal featured a quote from a
North Korean refugee woman who said, "If I had a chance to meet with
President Obama, I would first like to tell him how North Korean women
are being sold like livestock in China and, second, to know that North
Korean labor camps are hell on earth."
Even in the face of North Korea's nuclear ambitions it is inexcusable
for their abhorrent human rights record to not just be relegated to the
back burner, but seemingly removed from the agenda altogether. Unlike
past administrations, this administration had nothing to say, no public
statement, acknowledging North Korea Human Rights Week this April, and
Secretary Clinton, who was in town, could not find time in her schedule
to meet with any of the 30 brave North Korean defectors in the nation's
capital to mark the occasion.
Or consider Vietnam. In its 2009 annual report, the U.S. Commission
on International Religious Freedom found that, "Individuals continue
to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious
activity or religious freedom advocacy; police and government officials
are not held fully accountable for abuses; independent religious
activity remains illegal; and legal protections for government-approved
religious organizations are both vague and subject to arbitrary or
discriminatory interpretations based on political factors." The
commission recommended that Vietnam be placed back on the State
Department's Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list, a list
reserved for the world's worst offenders of religious freedom.
But a June 25 Washington Times article reported that "U.S.
Ambassador to Vietnam Michael W. Michalak recently rejected calls by
the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to put
Vietnam back on the CPC watch list. He cited that there was not enough
evidence of religious persecution."
This is the same ambassador who recently gave a 4th of July speech in
which he cited the timeless words of our own Declaration of
Independence, but then had nothing to say about the oppression and lack
of freedom in Vietnam. It is worth noting that Ambassador Michalak is a
career foreign service officer who has been in his current position
since the last years of the Bush administration. He is well acquainted
with my concerns regarding his apparent disregard for human rights in
Vietnam and his failure to make the U.S. embassy an island of freedom.
I was quick to criticize the Bush administration when it seemed that
they were missing opportunities to be a voice for the voiceless. Too
often in the previous administration the public rhetoric failed to
match action. But in this new, young administration, even the rhetoric
Reports of the President's trip to Russia quote a top National
Security Council adviser as saying the Obama administration "came to
the conclusion that us waving our fingers around the world is a
strategy that hasn't worked very well in the past." This same adviser
later conceded to Politico that human rights were never raised in
Obama's meeting with Russian President Putin.
It seems this administration could learn a lesson from history . . .
from another Russian in fact.
The year was 1975. Famed Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was
set to visit Washington. The city's foreign policy establishment, among
them Henry Kissinger, sought to obstruct him at every turn. He was
refused a meeting with President Ford, who declined to meet with him
fearing it would sour an upcoming meeting with Soviet leader Brezhnev.
When Solzhenitsyn delivered a major speech at the AFL-CIO, State
Department employees were forbidden from attending.
Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, was angered at the snub
and wrote a column which appeared in papers across the country exposing
the White House's motives for refusing an audience with this renowned
dissident, author of Gulag Archipelago. Reagan wrote, "the real reason
for the snub surfaced: a visit with Solzhenitsyn would violate the
'spirit of detente."
Fast forward eight years. Now president, Mr. Reagan delivers an
electrifying speech where he refers to the Soviet Union as the "evil
Another Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, wrote in his book of how
word of that speech penetrated the gulag. "Tapping on walls and
talking through toilets, word of Reagan's `provocation' quickly spread
through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally the leader of
the free world had spoken the truth--a truth that burned inside the
heart of each and every one of us."
Nearly 30 years later, much has changed, but much remains the same.
Speaking truth to power will always place America on the right
side of history. Speaking out for those who have no voice will always
be a source of hope for people in the darkest corners of the globe.
This President and this Secretary of State need to remember that the
surest way to accomplish their stated goal of bolstering America's
standing in the world is to find common cause not with oppressors, but
with those they repress.