Human Spin Watch

Rather confused reactions from HRW on the Obama speech:

HRW's reaction to the Obama speech at 11:15pm Cairo time on June 4 (comment below - after the long excerpts):

US/Egypt: Obama Dodged Rights Issue
Generalities Failed to Send Tough Message on Mideast Repression


(Cairo, June 4, 2009) – President Barack Obama’s speech on June 4, 2009 failed to advance the promotion of human rights in the Muslim world, Human Rights Watch said today. In a much-anticipated address, Obama spoke bluntly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but kept to generalities when it came to the pressing need for human rights and democratic reforms in the region.

“If Obama wanted to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the US, he should have taken on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed, including his hosts,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt and others will interpret his bland generalities as a signal they have nothing to fear from their friends in Washington.”

Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama addressed democracy as a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world. His choice of Cairo for this much-anticipated speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents.

Obama said that all people yearn for “the rule of law and administration of justice,” but did not criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries. President Hosni Mubarak in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to suppress demonstrations, detain opponents arbitrarily, and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards.

On freedom of expression, Obama spoke of the importance of the “ability to speak your mind” but missed the opportunity to criticize the imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and bloggers in Egypt and elsewhere.

On torture, Obama spoke only in the context of post 9/11 practices by the United States, noting that the United States has “unequivocally prohibited” its use. But he failed to speak of the practice of torture in the Middle East and of US complicity in the renditions to countries where torture is systemic, including Egypt, or of the need for measures to bring accountability for such practices.

Coming four years after then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s pro-democracy speech in Cairo, which some contend helped to widen space for democratic activism in Egypt, Obama’s comments on democracy had been eagerly awaited. In that speech, Rice said that in Egypt “peaceful supporters of democracy – men and women – are not free from violence,” and that “the day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees – and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.”

In contrast, Obama’s argument that “governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful, and secure,” and his reiteration that “you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,” will not make the Egyptian government or any others in the region feel particularly uncomfortable.

“Obama failed to address the dire state of human rights in the region and the past US practice of ‘rendering’ persons to countries like Egypt for torture,” said Whitson. “His Cairo speech brings us no new beginning in terms of promoting human rights.”


HRW's follow-up message 50 minutes later:

Dear all,

Apologies, but please do not use the news release headlined “US/Egypt: Obama Dodged Rights Issue,” which was sent in error at 4:15 p.m. EDT. We will send a corrected version shortly.


HRW's final release over three hours after that:

Obama Mid-East Speech Supports Rights, Democracy
But US Needs Stronger Message for Repressive Regional Allies


(Cairo, June 4, 2009) – President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated June 4, 2009, speech to the Muslim world avoided confronting authoritarian governments directly, but sent a welcome message that Washington would not let the prospect of empowering Islamist parties deter it from supporting democracy in the region, Human Rights Watch said today.

Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama said the issue of democracy and human rights was a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world, in part because of the Bush administration’s use of democratic rhetoric to justify the war in Iraq. He pledged, however, that the United States would continue to support human rights and democratic principles in the region.

“For the US to regain credibility, it will have to follow through even when voters in the Middle East elect governments Washington doesn’t like,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Obama wants to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the United States, he should take on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed – including his hosts.”

Obama’s choice of Cairo for the speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents. Obama said that all people yearn for “the rule of law and the equal administration of justice,” adding, “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” Obama stressed that the US would “respect the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them” and “welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,” an apparent reference to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Obama missed an important opportunity to criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to suppress demonstrations, detain opponents arbitrarily, and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards.

On freedom of expression, Obama rightly spoke of the importance of the “ability to speak your mind,” but failed to criticize the imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and bloggers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Obama spoke about torture in the context of post-9/11 practices by the United States, noting that his administration has “unequivocally prohibited” its use.

“Obama told his Middle Eastern audience that the US has ended torture, but it would have been better had he also urged governments of the region, including Egypt’s, to do the same,” Whitson said.

Acknowledging the suffering of both Israeli and Palestinian people, Obama pressed both sides to take steps to end their conflict. He said the US did not support “continued Israeli settlements” in the Occupied Territories, and urged Hamas to stop the use of violence. Obama implicitly called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, noting “the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.”

But Obama did not mention the upcoming UN Human Rights Council mission, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, to investigate abuses by both sides in the recent conflict in Gaza. Human Rights Watch said Obama should have used this opportunity to push Israel to cooperate with the international investigation.

“Obama’s made a start in restoring America’s image in the Middle East, affirming US support for human rights principles,” said Whitson. “He’s laid out general principles, but now he needs to be more specific about what Washington expects from its authoritarian allies – that they free political prisoners, end torture, allow a free press and tolerate genuine political opposition.”


It's not that the final release is that bad, although the initial one was better as far as HRW's remit -- human rights -- are concerned. But the initial one had a lot more info about the problematic nature of having Egypt, a serial abuser, as host and also raises the bilateral issue of rendition, an ongoing program Obama did not cancel. Basically the first release was an Egypt-focused one, centered on the relegation of democracy and human rights to a distant concern for the Obama administration. The final release tones down that criticism and adds, rightly, that Obama should have called on Israel to comply with the Goldstone Enquiry and highlighted the most recent massive abuse of human rights in the region, Israel's Operation Cast Lead. Worth noting the initial release had nothing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wonder what brought about the change of mind. Both releases make valid points, I wish they had made both the points about Egypt and the relegation of human rights promotion in Obama's foreign policy as well as his need to take a stronger stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after Gaza. (Although I do think the point in the final press release about the US sending the signal that will not shirk from empowering Islamists by respecting their democratic elections is wrong -- after all, if this was so Hamas would be recognized as the legitimate government of Palestine.)