Obama and human rights: Is 'soft power' working?

President Obama aims to lift human rights by engagement. Supporters say that takes time. But others say new data point to the need for a harder line.

Dennis Rivera/AP/File
President Obama attends a ceremony in Havana, Cuba, last month, with a monument Cuba's revolutionary hero Ernesto 'Che' Guevara in the background. Some rights groups say new US-Cuba relations have not helped improve human rights in the Caribbean nation.

A new and downbeat assessment of human rights trends worldwide is raising questions about whether the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy is making the situation worse.

The State Department’s annual human rights report issued this week suggests that respect for human rights deteriorated in many parts of the world last year. The report asserts that “in every part of the world, we see an accelerating trend by both state and non-state actors” to commit increasingly grave rights abuses. 

Critics say President Obama’s signature dialogue with adversaries is not delivering rights improvements. Iran is cited as a case in point, as is Cuba – where, by some key human-rights measures, conditions have worsened since the United States and Cuba normalized relations last year.

Moreover, some foreign policy analysts say that, despite Mr. Obama’s lofty goals on human rights, his disengagement with some longtime partners has allowed them to deepen their authoritarianism. Egypt, highlighted in the report for worsening human rights conditions, is a case in point.

The debate over how best to move countries away from repressive practices and promote respect for human rights has many sides. But strong US leadership is an essential element, either through more aggressive policy or at least a firmer tone, many experts said at a foreign policy forum this week.

The concern is that Obama administration has shied away for fear of undermining attempts to reach out to former enemies.

“This administration seems to believe … we can’t say mean things, they’ll walk away,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, at the forum held by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Wednesday. “They’re not going to walk away, of course we can say mean things.”


In issuing the State Department’s 2015 human rights report Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry underlined the danger of nations that abuse human rights. “Governments that deny political liberty forfeit public trust, thereby opening the door to civil unrest of all sorts, including violent extremism,” he said.

But the US is shirking its responsibility to hold countries like Egypt to account, says Mr. Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.

“The United States should be much more critical” of the direction Egypt is taking under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, said Abrams, calling the Sisi regime “far more repressive than [President Hosni] Mubarak’s was.”

“We’re a making a mistake if we invest our trust in a regime that is not succeeding.”

The State Department report likewise faults Egypt, which receives billions of dollars in US aid annually, for harassing and shutting down human rights organizations and for restricting the travel of political activists and human rights advocates.

International human rights groups charge the US with staying mostly silent on Egypt’s repressive slide. The reason, they say: The US has sympathy for Mr. Sisi’s tough fight with violent Islamist extremists.


Yet neither is Obama’s policy of engagement with adversaries delivering improvements, critics say.

The State Department report singles out Iran for a deteriorating human rights environment, noting “severe restrictions” on basic freedoms including speech, the press, religion, and assembly. In particular, the report condemns Iran’s “escalating use of capital punishment,” especially in cases of crimes that fall below “the threshold of most serious” or are committed by juveniles.

The pattern of US appeasement began well before the unveiling of the Iran nuclear deal last year, critics say. In 2009, the administration said little when the Iranian government snuffed out a fledgling democracy movement blossoming around national elections.

That “silence,” critics add, has only abetted Iran’s hardliners, who have cracked down on any sign of political dissent and imposed increasingly repressive measures, even as the country moved toward the nuclear agreement.

“Let’s get back to a more aggressive posture” with Iran, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, at the Wednesday forum. The US should not ignore Tehran’s “use of repression” but instead pursue means, including sanctions, to influence the Iranian government’s behavior, he said.


Some human rights advocates see a similar pattern of worsening conditions in Cuba in conjunction with its diplomatic opening to the US. Dissident rights organizations in Cuba say political detentions increased last year compared with 2013.

Supporters of Obama’s policy suggest that the arc of change on human rights cannot be measured over such short time spans. Obama’s foreign-policy approach is changing paradigms, slowly but profoundly, they add.

“Since Raúl Castro became president, more Cubans have been able to open their own businesses, travel freely abroad, openly practice their religion, buy or sell their houses, purchase a cell phone and a personal computer, and more openly express criticism of Cuba’s contemporary reality in blogs, books, magazines, music, and art,” wrote Willian Leogrande, coauthor of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana” in Foreign Policy after Obama’s Cuba visit. “These are all threads in the tapestry of human rights, and Obama’s opening to Cuba has strengthened them.”

Obama has largely repudiated the “regime change” approach of President George W. Bush. Aside from his support for a European-led effort to displace former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi – on the auspices of preventing a genocide – Obama has preferred softer forms of power. The idea is to pressure governments, friend and foe alike, to improve their respect for human rights.

Kerry reiterated that approach toward Cuba Wednesday. Both he and Obama have used their talks with Cuban leaders to urge them to allow more of the “political openness” Cubans desire, he said.

“The only question is how long it will take for the officials in Havana to catch up to the population.” 

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