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U.S.: Obama Urged to Aggressively Pursue Rights Agenda

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Feb 22 2010 (IPS) - Following a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and a summit last week, human rights activists from a range of countries released a plan of action Monday according to which the United States can lead the way in safeguarding human rights.

The recommendations are the outcome of discussions that followed the 2010 Washington Human Rights Summit late last week. At the summit those fighting, both on the front lines and behind the scenes, for human rights and more responsive democracies in 27 countries gathered in Washington to discuss what they saw as a widespread escalation of assaults on human rights.

“The decline is global,” said William Taft IV, chairman of Freedom House, in opening the conference. “And it’s accompanied by enhanced persecution of political dissidents and journalists.”

Delegates from Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela, Uganda, Zimbabwe and elsewhere presented their experiences in their own countries to summit participants as well as their expectations of what the U.S. can and should do to protect human rights.

In addition to the economic recession, noted Taft, “we have also had a political recession and we think the governments of the world have not fully focused on the growing political recession that is underway in the world today.”

After meeting with the Dalai Lama earlier in the day, Obama met with the human rights defenders at the White House on Feb. 19. In the closed meeting, the president was reportedly urged to further align U.S. counterterrorism policies with human rights standards.

In a statement following the meeting, Human Rights First President and CEO Eliza Massimino said, “The United States has an obligation to support their courageous work, and that begins by setting a strong example here at home – closing Guantanamo, bringing terrorist suspects to justice in civilian trials, and ending the practice of indefinite detention.”

Human Rights First co-hosted the summit with Freedom House.

“The President pledged that his administration will continue to strive to live by the universal standards we champion, highlighted his commitment to engagement that extends to civil society and everyday citizens, and reiterated his support for a broad view that recognizes the crucial link between development and human rights,” said a White House press release on the meeting.

The delegation also reportedly met with National Security Advisor General James Jones and other senior national security staff.

The Obama administration’s record on human rights issues has been largely mixed so far. The U.S. reversed a previous position and joined – with an eye toward reforming – the troubled United Nations Human Rights Council in May, but human rights groups have complained that many others of former President George W. Bush’s controversial policies – such as keeping the Guantanamo prison open – have not been reversed.

In an essay in Monday’s issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, for instance, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth says “empty promises” and an “incomplete reversal” have characterised Obama track record on human rights so far.

“When it comes to promoting human rights at home and abroad, there has undoubtedly been a marked improvement in presidential rhetoric. However, the translation of those words into deeds remains incomplete,” Roth writes.

These concerns were partly addressed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour Michael Posner in a Thursday panel discussion at the summit.

“We have lots of problems in our own society,” he acknowledged, “not the least of which are the national security issues that we’ve talked about and that I feel strongly about, including the treatment of prisoners.”

Posner said he believes in a single human rights standard for all countries, saying it is “important that we do the right thing in our own affairs and that we lead by example.”

The plan of action released Monday largely focuses on the U.S. role in promoting human rights in other countries, however, rather than addressing work that may need to be done at home.

Among the specific recommendations, the human rights defenders call on the U.S. to create a strategy for promoting freedom of expression “in countries where it is under threat” as well as to “fulfill its pledge to make Internet freedom an international priority.”

In a major speech last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made internet freedom a new and important part of U.S. foreign policy as she called on Chinese authorities to investigate the security breaches that had triggered Google’s decision to end its cooperation with Chinese censorship of its search engine results.

Posner also mentioned the relatively new issue of internet freedom Thursday. Governments are “freaking out,” he said. “They don’t quite know how to deal with it.”

The summit’s recommendations also emphasise the role of civil society organisations and the need for the U.S. to support their work in promoting human rights and democracy. It calls on the superpower to “not acquiesce to the demands of other governments to vet or restrict U.S. foreign assistance to CSOs.”

“There are many countries that are staying up late at night to figure out ways to limit the activities of NGOs,” Posner acknowledged.

The U.S. has been criticised for agreeing to allow the Egyptian government to have veto power over which NGOs in Egypt get money from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Roth, likewise, terms this an “acquiescence” and cites it as one of several instances in which Obama “has not publicly criticised U.S. allies in the Middle East that violate democratic principles, nor is there any evidence that he has privately encouraged these authoritarian governments to move in a more democratic direction.”

The plan of action also calls on the U.S. to actively support the work of human rights defenders internationally and the building of democratic institutions.

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