It has not been a promising start for the Obama administration in the area of human rights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the most damage with comments during her recent trip to Asia that could not have been more demoralizing to human rights defenders in China and around the world. Following her trip, Clinton missed an opportunity during the State Department's rollout of the annual Human Rights Report to restore the administration's credibility on the freedom and human rights agenda. And the administration's determination to engage in multilateral fora in contrast to the Bush administration keeps it from making a clear, final decision to boycott the April UN Conference Against Racism, known as Durban II.
Even before Clinton's trip to Asia, human rights activists were struck by how rarely leading Obama administration officials spoke about democracy and human rights. In the "careful-what-you-wish-for" category, Clinton opined on the issue on her way to Beijing, to the serious disappointment of the human rights community.
"We pretty much know what they [the Chinese government] are going to say" on human rights issues such as greater freedoms for Tibet, Clinton dismissively told reporters. "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere" with other crucial topics.
Chinese leaders must have been smiling from ear to ear, for those were their talking points, too. Repressive regimes elsewhere will undoubtedly ask for the same treatment of human rights problems in their countries that Clinton gave the Chinese.
Amnesty International criticized Clinton in a statement released February 20, saying it was "shocked and extremely disappointed by U.S. Secretary Clinton's comments that human rights will not be a priority in her diplomatic engagement with China." They urged her to "repair the damage caused by her statement" and "publicly declare that human rights are central to U.S.-China relations." Alas, she didn't. Human Rights Watch, in its own statement, headlined its concerns saying that Clinton's remarks "undermine rights reform" in China.
Yet her comments on China were not the only ones that raised eyebrows. Earlier on her trip, she also discussed Burma, where the human rights situation is appalling and more than 2,100 political prisoners remain in jail. She questioned the effectiveness of sanctions against the military junta (and also wondered about neighboring states' policy of engaging with the regime). The problem indeed is that neighboring states such as India, Thailand, and China undermine the impact of sanctions by giving the junta a lifeline through trade and arms sales. Here, too, Clinton's comments caused confusion about the new administration's commitment to deal aggressively with repressive regimes.
After returning from Asia, Clinton introduced the Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights on February 25. In light of the controversy over her comments on the trip, one might have expected Clinton to go out of her way to reaffirm her and the Obama administration's commitment to human rights as a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, she spent a mere four minutes in the briefing room and refused to take questions, turning the podium over to the Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, who did a very credible job answering reporters' questions. And the first question, not surprisingly, was how to square Clinton's comments in Asia with the importance of the rollout of the Human Rights Report. It's a shame Clinton wasn't there to answer it herself.
Read it all here.