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Translating Rhetoric Into Policy on Democracy

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In a speech to America's diplomats at the State Department on May 19, 2011, President Obama declared the United States' commitment to pursue policies that promote and protect human rights around the world. These rights, he argued, include "free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -- whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran."

A year has passed since that much-lauded speech gave voice to a commitment that human rights advocates had long been pushing for. In that time, the president and his foreign affairs team have struggled with the difficult task of channeling the rhetoric, which rightfully places human rights and democratic governance at the top of America's priority list, into meaningful policies.

From Moscow, to Cairo, to Manama, there have been incredible opportunities to make democracy and human rights a hallmark of this presidency. Obama's speech in Cairo in 2009 and his stance on Libya at this time last year suggested that he would face these issues in a way that would have positive and historic repercussions. However, in the year, the administration has made a number of decisions that contradict the president's pledge last May to consider democracy and human rights a "top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal."

There is no evidence that any other administration would have handled these issues more effectively. Presidents Bush and Clinton certainly had their own significant shortcomings when it came to human rights and democracy promotion. But recent world events represent a historic opportunity that both parties should embrace, and it is Obama's duty as president to take the lead.

The decision to intervene militarily in Libya was a difficult one, on which the United States showed welcome leadership. As Libya prepares for its first elections, however, thousands of Syrians are being slaughtered in the streets, waiting for help as the international community continues to debate plans that depend on the cooperation of the very man undertaking that slaughter. The Obama administration is by no means solely responsible for the lack of action on Syria, but history will not be forgiving in its assessment of what could amount to this decade's Rwanda or Srebrenica, where thousands of innocent people perished as the world's leaders sat on their hands.

In Cairo, the site of another historic Obama speech, the promise and optimism that followed the downfall of Hosni Mubarak has diminished as a result of violent riots, increasing repression, the continued political role and impunity of the military, and crackdowns against civil society. The Egyptian authorities' raid on the offices of four American-based NGOs, including Freedom House, in December was an incredible provocation that should have been dealt with immediately and decisively. Instead, the Obama administration waffled, trying to negotiate a nonnegotiable issue. Its approach led to what was for all intents and purposes a hostage negotiation, after which "bail" was paid so that 16 American workers could leave the country.

Despite the fact that the American organizations' Egyptian offices remain closed, charges are still pending against all of the workers, including the Americans, and a trial is now under way, the Obama administration decided to waive human rights conditions on American military aid to Egypt, giving up a great deal of leverage over the situation and essentially rewarding the Egyptian military for overseeing the debacle. This decision sent a resounding message to the people of Egypt that American policy toward the country has not changed, and that we will continue to support brutal strongmen to the detriment of ordinary citizens and their democratic aspirations.

In the Gulf region, the administration announced last month that it will move forward with a series of arms sales to the Kingdom of Bahrain, which remains engaged in widespread repression against a year-long protest movement. Freedom House has been denied entry into Bahrain twice in the past six months, despite the government's pledges to open the country to foreign media and international human rights groups. The Obama administration's decision to move forward with these sales, as well as its request for $10 million in military aid for Bahrain for fiscal year (FY) 2013 -- having received absolutely nothing in return from the Bahraini government in the way of reform -- is shortsighted and tone-deaf with respect to the struggles of the Bahraini people.

In places like Russia and China, the United States has less leverage to apply in support of human rights and democracy, but these issues should consistently be at the forefront of the bilateral relationships. Though China is one of the world's worst human rights abusers, human rights are never at the top of the agenda in U.S.-China relations, and are too often downplayed until a problem quite literally shows up on America's doorstep, as in the case of activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng. In Russia, prominent statements by Secretary Clinton and other diplomats about the recent questionable elections have angered Vladimir Putin and his cronies, but such strong words have never been translated into strong policy. The administration's refusal to support the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which would impose travel and financial sanctions on individual human rights abusers, is a prime example of this problem.

All of these cases are extremely difficult to navigate. They are not black and white, and there are a variety of interests at stake. But as the president said in May last year, "there must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity." Unfortunately, U.S. actions over the past year have stoked doubt around the world, and especially in the Middle East, as to America's commitment to these ideals.

This entry was first published at http://www.freedomhouse.org/blog