Obama administration needs to 'find its voice' on human rights (Rep. Frank Wolf)

 
Sadly, Kristof’s assessment can be applied elsewhere around the world.  It seems that President Obama and the administration as a whole have struggled to find its voice when it comes to the promotion and protection of basic human rights and religious freedom.

These most cherished ideals, which are at the very heart of the American experiment, have time and again been sidelined in this administration’s foreign policy.  This is a grievous mistake which has dire implications for the world’s dissidents and democrats who yearn for freedom and look to America to be their advocate.

Looking back to Sudan, a nation I first visited in 1989, and most recently in 2004 when Senator Sam Brownback and I were the first congressional delegation to go to Darfur, I remain deeply concerned that the country is headed for a resumption of civil war if the U.S. fails to exert the necessary leadership.

While there were certainly times that I was critical of the Bush Administration’s policies, it is indisputable that he and former Special Envoy John Danforth were instrumental in securing, after two and half years of negotiations, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which brought about an end to the brutal 20-year civil war in which more than 2 million perished, most of whom were civilians.

A recent New York Times column by author Dave Eggers and Sudan activist John Prendergast titled, ‘In Sudan, War is Around the Corner,’ spoke to this reality.  The pair wrote: ‘Shortly after George W. Bush entered the White House, he decided he would put the full diplomatic leverage of the United State to work in ending this war, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century.  He succeeded.’ 

Eggers and Prendergast rightly noted that when the South is given the opportunity to vote for independence in January, as guaranteed by the CPA, the conventional wisdom is that they will waste no time in severing ties with Khartoum.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that President Bashir remains at the helm in Khartoum.  Long an indicted war criminal, he was earlier this month also officially charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating genocide in Darfur.   Bashir’s murderous aims in Darfur are not without precedent.

With just six months to go, Khartoum persists in dragging its feet - undermining and stalling the process at every turn.  Furthermore, the deeply flawed April elections do not bode well for the fate of a free, fair and timely referendum process.  Failure to deliver on the long-awaited promise of a respectable referendum could have grave implications. While some of the administration’s rhetoric has improved of late, notably during Vice President Biden’s trip to Africa, we have yet to see the administration apply real consequences to Khartoum. 

In fact, most Sudan watchers would agree that we have seen little to no evidence, since the administration’s release of their Sudan policy, that they have any intention of utilizing sticks.  Rather, they appear to be relying exclusively on carrots. 

A July 14 Associated Press article titled, ‘Promises, Promises: US Fails to Punish Sudan,’ described the administration’s track record on Sudan this way: ‘The words of the Obama administration were unequivocal: Sudan must do more to fight terror and improve human rights.  If it did, it would be rewarded.  If not, it would be punished.  Nine months later, problems with Sudan have grown worse.  Yet the administration has not clamped down.  If anything, it has made small conciliatory gestures.’

Eggers and Prendergast, in their New York Times piece, close with a chilling warning as it relates to the months ahead in Sudan: ‘This is President Obama’s Rwanda moment, and it is unfolding now, in slow motion.  It is not too late to prevent the coming war in Sudan, and protect the peace we helped build five years ago.’

President Obama and his advisers need not rely on the warnings of those in the advocacy community and on Capitol Hill when it comes to the high stakes in Sudan in the days ahead.  Rather they can simply look to the Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, which recently predicted that over the next five years, ‘...a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan’ - more so than any other country. 

A welcomed step toward preserving the tenuous peace would be to provide South Sudan the air defense system that the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) requested and President Bush reportedly approved in 2008.  This defensive capability would help neutralize Khartoum’s major tactical advantage, a virtual necessity in light of the scorched earth tactics and antanov bombers that have marked their genocidal campaigns of the past and would make peace and stability more likely following the referendum vote. 

During the campaign for the presidency, then candidate Obama said ‘Washington must respond to the ongoing genocide and the ongoing failure to implement the CPA with consistency and strong consequences.’  These words still ring true today.  And yet, apart from a recent National Security Council statement expressing support for ‘international efforts to bring those responsible for genocide and war crimes in Darfur to justice, we have seen an administration and a president struggling to find its voice on this most pressing human rights issue.  Special Envoy Gration, at a recent event on Capitol Hill, reportedly went so far as to say that the genocide charges against Bashir will make his job harder.

Sudan is not an anomaly.  Consider China, a country where human rights, religious freedom and civil society continue to be under fierce attack by the country’s ruling communist party. 

From the outset, this administration chose to marginalize human rights in the context of U.S.-China bilateral relations.  On her first trip to Asia, Secretary of State Clinton was downright dismissive of human rights concerns saying that ‘those issues can't interfere’ with economic, security or environmental concerns.

A firestorm of criticism ensued.  Human rights organizations were rightly 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 rights.’

In China we again see an administration which seems unable to find its voice on human rights.  A glance at the news from the last several weeks alone makes it painfully clear that that voice - the voice which speaks out on behalf of those enduring tremendous persecution and oppression at the hands of their own government - has never been more necessary.

A July 5 Associated Press (AP) story, reported that Yu Jue, ‘a best-selling author and fierce critic of the Communist Party was taken into custody by the police on Monday for reasons that were unclear...’ 

The AP reported on July 15 that ‘dozens of blogs by some of China's most outspoken users have been abruptly shut down while popular Twitter services appear to be the newest target in government efforts to control social networking.’

"Veteran dissident Liu Xianbin, an original signatory of Charter 08, a historic pro-democracy manifesto, was arrested by Chinese authorities on June 27 on suspicion of ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ 

July also marks the one-year anniversary of the deadly suppression of Uighur protestors last summer in the northwest of China. China’s beleaguered Uighur Muslim community continues to face severe repression in the aftermath of the violence.  According to multiple independent news sources, authorities reportedly installed 40,000 security cameras throughout the city in anticipation of the one-year anniversary.

Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, authored a piece in The Washington Post on the occasion of the anniversary.  He highlighted a report by the Uighur Human Rights Project aptly titled, ‘Can Anyone Hear Us?’ which documents ‘the firing on protesters that led to hundreds of deaths, as well as mass beatings, the arbitrary detention of thousands and a 10-month communications shutdown that cut off the region from the outside world.’

Gershman closes his piece with the following charge: ‘The United States and the international community should also support the Uighurs' three-month-old call for an independent international investigation into the events of last July and the opening of a meaningful dialogue with Chinese authorities. Uighur voices have been crying in the wilderness. It's time to listen.’

It is indeed time to listen.  It is also time to add America’s voice to the chorus of voices within China pressing for greater freedoms and basic human rights. 

Just last week I had the honor of meeting with two courageous Chinese human rights lawyers visiting the U.S. for legal training and to brief policymakers on the situation facing those defending rule of law in China.  These lawyers often choose to represent, at their own peril, those human rights activists, house church leaders, bloggers etc. who face persecution in the form of trumped up charges and the absence of due process.  The lawyers said quite pointedly that their lives improve, and those of their cohorts in prison or facing other pressures by the Chinese government, when the West speaks out for their plight and raises their cases by name.

This sentiment is nothing new.  I remarked that they are China's Sakarovs and Solzhenitsyns.  Similarly these giants in the cause of freedom time and again recounted how their lives in the gulags improved when the West and President Reagan championed their cause and challenged the lies that were at the foundation of the Soviet system.

It seems this administration has forgotten the lessons of history to the detriment of China’s young democrats.

In their annual Freedom in the World Report, the NGO Freedom House documented a litany of abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government and then made the following observation: ‘While these acts of repression are disturbing, so is the absence of protest from the democratic world.  When the Soviet Union arrested a dissident or suppressed religious expression, it drew widespread condemnation by figures ranging from heads of state to trade unions leaders, as well as by human rights organizations and prominent humanitarians.  China’s current actions, by contrast, elicit little more than boilerplate criticism, and just as often they provoke no response whatsoever.’

Elsewhere in Asia we see an administration seeming to align itself with the oppressor over the oppressed.  Look at Vietnam.  On July 19, AFP reported that Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of State for East Asian Affairs said ‘as I look at all the friends in Southeast Asia, I think we have the greatest prospects in the future with Vietnam.’

This is a strange affinity to have with a government that our own State Department said ‘increased its suppression of dissent, arresting and convicting several political activists’ during the reporting period of the 2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices. 

The State Department’s report continues: ‘several editors and reporters from prominent newspapers were fired for reporting on official corruption and outside blogging on political topics. Bloggers were detained and arrested under vague national security provisions for criticizing the government and were prohibited from posting material the government saw as sensitive or critical. The government also monitored e-mail and regulated or suppressed Internet content…The government utilized or tolerated the use of force to resolve disputes with a Buddhist order in Lam Dong and Catholic groups with unresolved property claims...’

Last week Secretary Clinton was in Vietnam for ASEAN meetings.  Initial news reports indicate that she raised human rights concerns in her meeting with the Foreign Minister and afterwards with journalists.  However, a New York Times story today pointed out that the timing of her comments on these sensitive issues ‘suggested that she wanted to make her point and move on.’  If the administration is truly concerned about human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam, they would take the concrete step of placing Vietnam back on the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list, as has been recommended by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Leonard Leo, chair USCIRF, rightly points out that Vietnam’s human rights record has only improved when its ‘feet were held to the fire.’   Leo continued, ‘but once Vietnam, with U.S. help, joined the World Trade Organization in 2007, religious freedom and human rights advocates have experienced waves of arrests,’ Leo said.  Waves of arrests from our ‘friend’ in Southeast Asia?

Or consider North Korea.  Without question, this country is one of the darkest places on the globe.  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 to death.

Last summer, an 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.’

However, because North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and threatens not only to use them against neighboring countries but also to share nuclear weapons technology with such rogue states as Burma and Syria, the international community, the U.S. included, has tended to downplay or outright ignore the horrendous human rights abuses in North Korea in the interest of trying to negotiate through the so-called six-party talks an end to its nuclear program. 

But nothing has been achieved by these negotiations.  And the recent sinking of the South Korean ship has stalled efforts to revive six-nation talks.  Even in the face of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions it is inexcusable that its abhorrent human rights record is relegated to the back burner and that the North Korea Freedom Act has not been fully implemented.  Why has the administration had so little to say about those trapped in ‘hell on earth’?

Looking to the Middle East we again see an administration whose advocacy on behalf of persecuted peoples has been sorely lacking.

A February 6 ABC News story opened with the following observation: ‘Across the Middle East, where Christianity was born and its followers once made up a sizable portion of the population, Christians are now tiny minorities.’

This is perhaps no more true than in Iraq.  With the exception of Israel, the Bible contains more references to the cities, regions and nations of ancient Iraq than any other country. 

Tragically Iraq’s ancient Christian community is facing extinction.  The U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimates that some 250,000 to 500,000 Christians have left the country since 2003, or about half the Christian population. 

While I have appreciated Ambassador Chris Hill’s commitment to this issue during his time as U.S. ambassador, and while I believe that Michael Corbin, the deputy assistant secretary of State who is charged with working on Iraqi minorities issues cares deeply about this issue, I see a continued unwillingness at the highest levels of the State Department to acknowledge and ultimately address the challenges facing these ancient faith communities.

In an April 2009 column in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger summed it up this way: ‘Candidate Obama last fall sent a letter to Condoleezza Rice expressing ‘my concern about the safety and well-being of Iraq's Christian and other non-Muslim religious minorities.’ He asked what steps the U.S. was taking to protect ‘these communities of religious freedom.’ Candidate Obama said he wanted these groups represented in Iraq's governing institutions. Does President Obama believe these things?’

I have long advocated both during the previous administration and in the current administration, for the U.S. to adopt a comprehensive policy to address the unique situation of these defenseless minorities.  I have pressed for a high-level human rights representative at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.   Such an approach is critical, with the U.S. presence in Iraq drawing down and our bilateral relations now governed by a ‘Strategic Framework Agreement.’ 

Among other things, we must be actively engaging the government of Iraq to press for adequate security at places of worship and ensure minority representation in local police units.  These are just some of the steps that could be taken to assist in the preservation of these ancient faith communities.  We have a moral obligation to do so.  I was reminded of this again last week while meeting with a visiting high-level delegation of Iraqi bishops.  Their impassioned pleas must not be ignored.

Turning to Egypt, Eli Lake pointed out in a July 18 Washington Times piece that, ‘the Obama administration ended support for a small fund operated by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that supported groups promoting Egyptian democracy and that bypassed any clearance from the Egyptian government.’

Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative, summarized the situation well in a recent Weekly Standard piece, writing ‘doing something for democracy in Egypt would require a policy reversal in Washington. . . . . since the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of the Obama administration, there has been retreat-including a cut in funding for democracy programs and acquiescence to an Egyptian veto over which groups may receive U.S. funds.’

Ironically, U.S. support for democracy promotion in Egypt is dwindling at a time when the people of Egypt are increasingly dissatisfied with the current regime.  A Washington Post story yesterday reported that ‘a protest in Alexandria last month was attended by 4,000 people -- a high number in Egypt, where many people are afraid to join demonstrations.’

Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, echoed these sentiments about the administration’s human rights and democracy promotion policy in Egypt and elsewhere around the world, in recent testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.  He said ‘a lack of strong, consistent leadership from the top of the administration…has become apparent to the bureaucracy; one result is the cutting or slowing of funding for democracy programming in countries such as Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Another consequence is that our embassies abroad are providing less diplomatic support on human rights and democracy. Asked about the U.S. position on democracy in Egypt, our Ambassador to Cairo praises the country’s press freedoms.’

Those yearning for greater freedoms in Egypt are not alone in facing the ire of their government.  So, too, Egypt’s Coptic Christian community faces increasing hardship. 

USCIRF, in its recently released annual report, described a deteriorating situation for this community.  USCIRF found that ‘the reporting period marked a significant upsurge in violence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians. The Egyptian government has not taken sufficient steps to halt the repression of and discrimination against Christians and other religious believers, or, in many cases, to punish those responsible for violence or other severe violations of religious freedom. This increase in violence, and the failure to prosecute those responsible, fosters a growing climate of impunity.’

Even though our own State Department has concluded that the last three years have been marked by a decline in religious freedom conditions in Egypt, there has been not significant change in U.S. policy.

Elsewhere in the region, Morocco is actually an example where American citizens, many of whom are people of faith, are facing a hostile government.  Over the last four months dozens of American citizens and scores of other foreign nationals have been deported and denied re-entry into the Kingdom of Morocco for allegedly proselytizing.

Authorities have refused to turn over any evidence or offer any explanation of the charges.  Among the individuals who were deported or denied reentry were businessmen, educators, humanitarian and social workers, many of whom had resided in Morocco for over a decade in full compliance with the law.  Additionally, those deported were forced to leave the country within two hours of being questioned by authorities, leaving everything behind.

Over the past several weeks, I have met with and heard from scores of Moroccan Christians.  Many feel that their voices have long been silenced that that these events highlight some of the pressures they experience.

On March 19, I wrote to the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Sam Kaplan, sharing my intent to meet the Moroccan ambassador to the U.S., and urging Ambassador Kaplan to ‘convey to the government of Morocco that members of Congress are watching these events closely and the outcome could negatively affect our bilateral relations.’  I have also spoken with Ambassador Kaplan on several occasions and shared with him my deep disappointment that the U.S. embassy and the State Department have not been more publicly outspoken on behalf of these American citizens. 

It is the primary responsibility of the United States’ embassies to defend and advocate for U.S. citizens and interests abroad.

Unfortunately, the Moroccan government has been utterly unwilling to compromise.  Perhaps they think they don’t need to given the number of high-powered lobbyists, including several former members of Congress, they have on retainer.  If that is the case, they are sorely mistaken.   I have urged the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to suspend the five-year compact with Morocco which is worth $697.5 million.  The MCC awards compacts on the basis of 17 key indicators of eligibility, six of which fall under the category of ‘ruling justly.’  However, recent events raise serious questions regarding the Moroccan government’s willingness to abide by the principles outlined in the MCC indicators.

A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed rightly pointed out that during a time of economic hardship ‘U.S. taxpayers won’t tolerate financing governments that mistreat Americans solely because of their religion.’

Can the administration not even find its voice when it comes to the rights of U.S. citizens abroad being trampled?  

I’ve been assured that the State Department is raising the matter privately with the Moroccan Government.  Frankly, this is insufficient.  The manner and the means by which we raise concerns of this nature with foreign governments communicate a whole host of unspoken messages.  Do we simply have a private meeting with the ambassador and ask him to look into the matter?  Or does the Department’s Press Secretary issue a statement expressing deep concern?  Or better yet, does President Obama call the King of Morocco and make it clear that treating American citizens this way will not be tolerated?  Each approach has distinct undertones which highlight the level of priority and seriousness that the U.S. government places on a particular issue.  Privately raising the issue with Moroccan government officials is a far cry from what we need to be doing publicly.

Even as the administration is struggling to find his voice on human rights, changes within the State Department threaten to institutionalize the marginalization of these core issues.

The State Department's International Religious Freedom (IRF) Office had been without ambassadorial leadership, as is required by law, for more than 18 months.  After increasing pressure from Congress and religious freedom advocacy groups, Obama named Suzan Johnson Cook to this post in June. She has not yet been confirmed.
 
With a void in senior leadership at the IRF office, I have been increasingly alarmed by reports that the office is being subsumed into the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 
Tom Farr, the first director of the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom, described what is happening this way in a Washington Post online column: ‘The ambassador will not report directly to the secretary of state as do other ambassadors at large (all of whom are experts in their fields). The staffers who reported to predecessors will not report to Johnson Cook should she be confirmed. The position will be emasculated, in direct contravention of the legislation that created it.’

In a May 25 letter to Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) Michael Posner, I raised these concerns in detail.  I submit a copy of the letter for the record. 

If the changes described by Farr move forward this could potentially violate U.S. law and break with 10 years of established practice under previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican.  The Ambassador-at-Large position was established under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), of which I was the primary author, to promote religious freedom abroad.  The legislation specifically states that ‘there is established within the Department of State an Office on International Religious Freedom that shall be headed by the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.’ 

Considering the importance of religious freedom to U.S. foreign policy and human rights promotion, I am alarmed by the possibility that DRL could be removing supervisory control from the Ambassador-at-Large over the Office of International Religious Freedom. 

These reported changes combined with the long ambassadorial vacancy do not bode well for the Bahai leader imprisoned in Iran’s notorious prisons, or for the Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan subject to officially sanctioned discrimination and persecution.  Who will be their advocate?  

The IRF Office is but one example of internal changes at the State Department.  The congressionally mandated Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, headed by a special envoy, only has a single dedicated staff person.  During the Bush administration there were 3-5 employees at various points.  An April 2010 CNN story featured the findings of a study released on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents more than doubled from 2008 to 2009.   At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise globally, the Special Envoy is relying almost exclusively on the already stretched thin IRF office for her staffing needs, therefore making it more difficult for the IRF office to fulfill its Congressional mandate. 

If the old adage ‘personnel is policy’ is true, then you could surmise that the absence of necessary personnel is itself a shift in policy priorities.

There are staff vacancies elsewhere at the State Department that are deeply troubling.  On June 24, I wrote Secretary of State Clinton about the Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues.  I submit the letter for the Record.  I was prompted to write the letter in part because it had come to my attention that there was only one person working in the office.  

Congress codified the position of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues as part of the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002.   Not long after the establishment of the office, Congress approved language directing that the office ‘consist of three professional full-time staff members and additional support staff, as needed, in addition to the special coordinator.’  The current inadequate staffing levels, at that point 17 months into the administration, were troubling and at odds with congressional intent.

Further, the congressionally mandated Report on Tibet Negotiations, which is due to Congress by March 31 of each year, has not yet been submitted.  These developments or lack thereof send a message about the priority this administration is placing on Tibet.  That message is not inconsistent with a message the White House sent last fall in declining to meet with the Dalai Lama when he was visiting Washington – the first time since 1991 that the Nobel Prize recipient and spiritual leader was not afforded a meeting with the president of the United States.

In closing, the complexities of foreign policy do not escape me.  I am well aware that there are multiple dimensions to our bilateral relations with countries around the globe.  But if the United States of America cannot be relied upon to speak out on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced, then it is indeed a dark day for millions around the world yearning to breathe the sweet air of freedom.

Where the administration fails to find its voice, Congress must stand in the gap.  For decades human rights enjoyed bipartisan support in this body.  Now I fear these issues have fallen victim to bipartisan apathy.

Too often, we underestimate the power of our words, or worse yet, the power of our silence. 

The late Robert Kennedy, speaking in 1966 Cape Town, South Africa, to a gathering of students committed to challenging the injustice of apartheid, famously said ‘each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’

America must stand up for the ideals upon which our own experiment in self-governance was founded.  America must strike out against injustice, whatever form it takes. America must believe that even the mightiest walls of oppression can tumble and work toward that end.

The hour is late and the stakes are high.  Will the administration accept this charge?  Can this president find his voice?  Will ‘ripples of hope’ once again infuse America’s foreign policy?


Rep. Wolf delivered these remarks on the House floor on July 22, 2010.

More in Foreign Policy

In defense of 'Obama’s law'

Read more »