President Obama approaches his third address to the United Nations General Assembly seemingly boxed in by the failure to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While many will be waiting to see what the President will propose to reinvigorate the peace process, the Israeli-Palestinian issue should not divert attention from the momentous events elsewhere in the region.
If President Obama takes his own advice from his address before the same body last year "to summon the foresight to look beyond immediate challenges," he should seize the opportunity of his address before the General Assembly to reaffirm U.S. support for universal values of human rights.
There is no doubt that the last twelve months has been a period of startling reaffirmation for the universality of human rights. In previous addresses, the President spoke out aspirationally that history would be on the side of liberty and that governments must respond to the legitimate demands of their people for accountable government. As he spoke those words one year ago he can have little imagined that within the space of a few months, beginning in Tunisia last December, tens of millions of people across North Africa and the Middle East would rise up against their dictatorial rulers in the name of dignity, justice and freedom.
The drastic changes now underway in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and the continuing repression of protest movements in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen create many challenges for U.S. policy and for the international community, but they provide opportunities to put into practice the fine principles that President Obama and many of his predecessors have enunciated from the U.N. lectern.
Now is the time for President Obama to live up to those principles by reaffirming that the United States government is unequivocally on the side of democratic reform and greater respect for human rights throughout the region. Every country situation in the region has its own complexities and presents its own unique challenges for U.S. policy. Thus it is not wrong that the U.S. government does not respond in the same way to every situation. What appears to have worked in Libya may not be feasible or desirable for Syria or Yemen, for example, but what must remain constant is a principled commitment to universal values everywhere.
The President deserves credit for supporting decisive, multilateral action backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that averted a potential slaughter in Libya. Now the United States should continue to work with the international community to support the creation of a new government in Tripoli that upholds the rights of all its citizens. President Obama should call on the Syrian government to stop its brutal repression of protesters and that it must cooperate with the commission of inquiry recently appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council. He must condemn the violent suppression of protesters in Yemen and urge U.S. allies, notably Bahrain, to move forward with genuine reform efforts that will result in more representative governments that uphold the rights of all members of society.
Last year, President Obama called on all member states to open their elections to international election monitors. To date, the Egyptian government has resisted international efforts to send observers to monitor Egypt's forthcoming parliamentary elections, now scheduled for November. The President should encourage Egypt to get in step with regional practices in Africa and the Middle East and invite international observers to monitor its elections. The presence of monitors will enhance the credibility of the electoral process at home and abroad and provide much needed legitimacy to the new elected parliament.
In noting the momentous events of the past few months in the Arab world, the President should underline the new hope these events provide for the fulfillment of the principles set forth in the United Nations Charter "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person..." while also recognizing the challenges that this presents for every government, including the government of the United States, to pursue policies that advance respect for universal principles everywhere.