Saudi Arabia vs. China: America can't play favorites with human rights
While the US has been quick to condemn human rights violations in China and rally behind persecuted activists there, President Obama has seemed hesitant to do the same with Saudi Arabia and its persecution of human rights activist Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani.
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And a few weeks later, during the State of the Union address, he proclaimed: “In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.”Skip to next paragraph
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Of course, many feel the US could – and should – do even more to pressure China about human rights issues. But the State Department responded quickly to China’s arrest of artist and activist Ai Weiwei, publicly urging “the Chinese government to release him immediately.”
More recently, the Obama administration engaged in a tense diplomatic standoff to allow blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng to leave China. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of China’s detention policies while releasing an annual report on human rights, which also cites information gathered by ACPRA multiple times under the country profile for Saudi Arabia.
But the administration has made no such public condemnations regarding the Saudi monarchy’s human rights abuses, no similar appeal to universal rights and solidarity on behalf of its persecuted activists.
Why the double standard? One obvious answer is that the US appeals to human rights strategically. China is a major rival and the focus of the pivot of military power from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific. The Saudi monarchy is a strategic partner – a counterbalance to Iran, and a common ally in struggles against Al Qaeda and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Oil is often mentioned as a reason for Washington’s avoidance of tension with Saudi Arabia, but the US also has deep trade and economic ties with China, and they haven’t prevented the US from overtly pressuring Beijing on human rights issues.
Perhaps another reason the Obama administration is hesitant to pressure Saudi Arabia on its human rights abuses is that the US has itself sometimes engaged in torture, indefinite and arbitrary detention, and extraordinary renditions of suspected terrorists. To criticize a partner in many US anti-terror policies would open the US to accusations of hypocrisy while also weakening the American-Saudi relationship.
This is why the State Department uses language like “we trust the Government of Saudi Arabia…to give careful consideration to these voices of its citizens” regarding the arrest of women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif after she violated Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. And Secretary Kerry said he wanted to “recognize the Saudi Government” for reforms to advance women during his March 4 meeting in Saudi Arabia with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.
But ultimately, the Obama administration must choose whether it supports universal rights or not – and to what degree it is willing to voice and meaningfully show that support. America has the obligation to hold all nations to the same standard; universal rights must mean universal responsibility and accountability.
Andrew Fitzgerald is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He has researched democratic and activist movements while in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He blogs at www.newpublicsphere.com.