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They Still Blame America First

The curious human rights focus of the Obama administration.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assure us that they are champions of human rights. However, their focus, more often than not, is on America’s shortcomings. 

They Still Blame America First

The administration created a stir in April, when a spokesman for the National Security Council reported on a meeting between Obama and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev: “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.” Despite pleas from groups like Human Rights Watch to use the meeting as an opportunity “to raise concern about Kazakhstan’s disappointing human rights record and to press for immediate improvements,” Obama viewed this as simply one more chance to confess America’s sins.

Likewise, the administration last month presented its “Report of the United States of America” to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This exercise is overseen by the infamous U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), whose main preoccupation is vilifying Israel. The Obama administration confesses to such offenses as the disproportionately higher rates of unemployment in America among minorities. Are we to round up the president’s economic team for permitting such “human rights” abuses to continue? 

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the New Left of the 1960s will recognize the propensity to lambast America, to assert that the -freest and most inclusive country in the world is deeply flawed. Its ills are magnified; its virtues ignored. This is human rights, Noam Chomsky style. But what else should we expect from a president who is resolutely a man of the left?

When he’s not excoriating his fellow citizens, Obama’s primary interest in “human rights” is as a tool to trumpet his own political accomplishments. The administration touts, again in its human rights report, its health care bill and financial regulation legislation as signs of progress. Apparently, critics of Obamacare, including a significant majority of voters, are undermining human rights.

While the administration is busy bashing America and redefining human rights as adherence to the liberal Democratic agenda, real human rights abuses go largely unremarked upon. The problem is especially acute in the Muslim world (on which the administration showers attention, overwhelmingly positive and esteem-building).

News item: A court in Saudi Arabia considered deliberately paralyzing a man as punishment for severing the spinal cord of another man in a fight. Amnesty International appealed to the Ministry of Justice when one Saudi hospital said such a procedure was possible. In the glare of public opinion the court last month relented. The Obama administration remained mum throughout.

News item: A Saudi “scholar,” we are told, “called for a boycott of a supermarket chain that has hired female cashiers. .  .  . ‘The danger of hiring females in such public places is that it is part of normalizing the Western culture and that it is hypocritical and should be stopped,’ he said.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an indefatigable feminist at home, has remained largely mute on the topic of Muslim nations’ treatment of women. In fact, the United States sat idly by in the U.N. when Iran, whose regime murders women protestors in the street and uses rape as a part of its standard repertoire in prisons, was elected to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

One might be tempted to conclude these are exceptional cases, but we know from the administration’s own documentation that stonings, lashings, torture, honor killings, and deprivation of political and religious freedom are all too common.

The State Department’s Human Rights Reports released earlier this year enumerate these and other practices. For Saudi Arabia there was ample evidence of a “lack of women’s autonomy, freedom of movement, and economic independence; discriminatory practices surrounding divorce and child custody; the absence of a law criminalizing violence against women; and difficulties preventing women from escaping abusive environments.”

You can learn from the State Department’s report—though not from the high profile speeches of Obama or Clinton—that in Syria

security forces reportedly continued to use torture frequently. Local human rights organizations continued to cite numerous credible cases of security forces allegedly abusing and torturing prisoners and detainees and claimed that many instances of abuse went unreported. Individuals who suffered torture or beatings while detained refused to allow their names or details of their cases to be reported for fear of government reprisal.

Turkey’s record on torture is documented as well:

Human rights activists maintained that those arrested for ordinary crimes were as likely to suffer torture and mistreatment in detention as those arrested for political offenses such as speaking out against the government, although they were less likely to report abuse. .  .  . [A]uthorities allegedly tortured some suspects to obtain confessions, while others such as transvestites were regularly subject to abuse by police on “moral” grounds. 

A telling incident: A suspected thief was “tortured with nails and cigarettes during his interrogation and the mistreatment was verified by a medical report by the Van State Hospital. While awaiting trial, [his torturer] was promoted into the Ankara Antiterror Department.”

These are brief extracts from voluminous reports. Great time and attention are devoted to detailing the grisly facts; the extent of the problem is no secret.

The ample documentation and news reports, tragically, don’t carry much weight with the Obama administration. The administration “bears witness” and records data but takes little, if any, public action. Its priorities lie elsewhere—in defending its unpopular domestic agenda, in bullying Israel to relax the Gaza blockade and cease building in its capital, and in bolstering the prestige of the UNHRC, on which sit such human rights violators as China (“during the year there were reports that officials used electric shocks, beatings, shackles, and other forms of abuse”), Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. And the president’s primary foreign policy mission, we have learned, is to ingratiate himself not with the Muslim citizens of the Middle East—many of whom would dearly love some American-style freedom—but with Muslim despots.

Our moral standing in the world has suffered over the last 18 months (as has the president’s popularity in Muslim countries), but not nearly as much as have the victims of despotic regimes that receive lavish attention but far too little scrutiny from this president. These people are being treated like dogs—or worse—but the only pain our president feels is his own.

Jennifer Rubin is Commentary magazine’s contributing editor.


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