President Obama and China's Human Rights: Real Change or Rehashed Rhetoric?

By T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director

The headlines are clear. President Obama exerted pressure on Chinese President Hu Jintao about China’s human rights record during this week’s summit.

While Amnesty International applauds President Obama for speaking publicly about human rights during the press conference, the question remains: will US policy in practice reflect President Obama’s rhetoric? The challenge for President Obama is to convert the overly positive publicity into real concrete action to bring improvements in China’s human rights.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo remains locked up in China.

The rhetoric at the press briefing should be matched by incorporating human rights into every aspect of U.S. policy, not only limited to the State Department’s human rights bureau and annual human rights dialogue.  Human rights should be part of the policy brief for all the U.S. departments that interact with the Chinese government. Importantly, human rights should play an equal and important part of the US – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Prior to the state visit, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations urged President Obama to meet former political prisoners from China who are currently residing in the United States. President Bush met these political prisoners before his trip to China to attend the Olympics. President Obama ignored our request for reasons known only to him. By refusing to meet these political prisoners, the administration missed an opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness by which the United States views human rights in China. President Obama’s inaction also raises the question whether he is hesitant to be tough on human rights, in the absence of giving speeches.

The repartee between the Presidents was covered extensively; but the question looms: did President Obama get any commitment from the Chinese president for any tangible improvement in human rights? Did President Obama set any benchmarks or timelines? There are several areas to focus starting with re-education through labor camps, where Chinese authorities arbitrarily detain around 200,000 people, to the execution of political prisoners, and the continued imprisonment of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

President Hu Jintao acknowledged the human rights issues in response to reporters’ questions. Will President Obama do his part to translate his human rights rhetoric into practice?

President Obama endorses the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples!

Kicking off the second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference this morning, President Obama announced that the U.S. would finally endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)!

The UNDRIP is a non-legally binding human rights instrument which affirms universal standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of all Indigenous Peoples. It provides a framework for addressing indigenous issues and was adopted by the United Nations in 2007, with the United States as one of only four countries, along with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, that voted against the Declaration. Australia and New Zealand reversed their initial positions, and on November 12, Canada announced its endorsement of the Declaration as well.

In April 2010, the United States announced it would formally review its position on UNDRIP. Led by the State Department, the Administration held a series of tribal and NGO consultations to review what endorsement of the international human rights declaration would mean for Indigenous populations in the U.S. We are grateful to the Administration for their commitment to ensuring the ongoing engagement and consultation of tribal leaders, federally recognized tribes, and other interested stakeholders throughout this process.

This is a tremendous and long-overdue victory for American Indians in the U.S. – by endorsing the UNDRIP, the U.S. government is affirming its commitment to protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, both at home and abroad. 

A huge congratulation to all of our Native American and Alaska Native partners and friends for this long-awaited and well-deserved victory!

And a deep and heartfelt thank you to ALL of our activists and supporters who took action to let President Obama know that you support indigenous rights – without your action, support and commitment, this would not have been possible.

Human Rights Flashpoints – July 28, 2009

HONDURAS

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras for the second time on Friday, July 24, 2009.  After a brief moment in his home country, Zelaya retreated back into Nicaragua, setting up camp on Saturday to demand his return home and to power.

Since then, Zelaya has refrained from making another attempt to enter the country for fear of attacks against his supporters, as reported by the BBC.  Curfews remain in place in southern Honduras, while supporters of Mr. Zelaya have blocked main roads.

The Honduran armed forces endorsed the San José Accord, an agreement that was forged in Costa Rica between delegates representing President Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, the leader of the de facto government.  According to the New York Times, the accord is supported by most governments in the hemisphere and it would allow the return of Mr. Zelaya as president with limited powers.

There are currently no further talks scheduled to take place between the de facto government and Zelaya.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was detained by Honduran military personnel and forced into exile at the end of June.  Several government ministers are also reported to have been detained.  Roberto Micheletti, Congress speaker, has been sworn in as “Interim President.”  Micheletti has imposed a curfew.

Recent reports also suggest that journalists who have published news stories on the crisis or covering the issue of protests and scores of detentions have been intimidated.  Prosecutors have also reported threats on account of their attempts to verify human rights abuses during protests.

Must Reads

Overheard

“President Zelaya’s effort to reach the border is reckless.”  Hilary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, July 24, 2009.

“The United States should be helping me, not criticizing.”  Manuel Zelaya, Ousted Honduras President, July 25, 2009. 

SOMALIA

The worsening security situation in Somalia was exemplified by Al-Shabab raids on two UN compounds in Baidoa and Wajid last week, which severely hindered the UN’s humanitarian work in Somalia.  Al-Shabab has also threatened to shut down 3 UN operations in Somalia, accusing the UNDP, UNDSS, and UNPOS offices of working against Somali Muslims.  Ongoing fighting in Mogadishu has already led to the closure of many feeding centers throughout the city, putting pressure on already crowded IDP camps and straining the capacity of aid agencies all over Somalia.

Meanwhile, newly appointed Somali Security Minister Abdullahi Mohamed Ali vowed Friday to reform the security forces, telling Reuters by telephone that his “main priority is to gradually re-establish capable security forces that can defeat the terrorists.”

Must Reads

Overheard

“Such acts target the whole gamut of UN peace and humanitarian operations in Somalia.  The UN is providing life-saving support to people in need throughout Somalia, and will continue to do all it can to help the country emerge from decades of violence.”  Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, July 21, 2009.

“We again appeal to the warring parties in Somalia to respect basic international humanitarian and human rights principles and to guarantee the safety and security of the civilian population as well as for the humanitarian workers trying to help the victims.”  Ron Redmon, UNHCR Spokesperson, July 21, 2009.

Coming This Week

  • July 27: Obama begins economic talks with Chinese leaders
  • July 28: Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to arrive in Washington, DC for further discussions
  • July 30: Senate hearing on US strategy on Sudan
  • July 31: Renewal of UNAMID mandate
  • July 27 -  July 31: George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, and Robert Gates in Jerusalem for talks regarding West Bank settlements

Juliette Rousselot and Jacki Mowery contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

Response to General Dostum

Last week’s revelations about war crimes committed in Afghanistan in 2001 and the US supported cover up have caused quite a stir. Even General Abdul Dostum, the alleged perpetrator of the mass killings of Taliban prisoners of war, made a public comment, stating that it is impossible prisoners were abused”. Right. My colleague Sam Zarifi wrote up an excellent response. He brings in his first hand experience in Afghanistan. Here are some excerpts:

If, as Dostum asserts, there were investigations by the Afghan and U.S. governments, they should be made public. If their findings were accurate, Dostum should have nothing to fear from a reexamination of the facts. But the facts currently available indicate very strongly that many detainees – possibly hundreds – died while in the custody of Dostum’s forces in November 2001 and their bodies were dumped in the nearby desert of Dasht-e Leili (adding to the numerous bodies unceremoniously deposited there by various warring factions over the past three decades).
(…)
I was a human rights investigator in northwestern Afghanistan in February 2002. At the time, numerous witnesses spoke of seeing several trucks dumping what appeared to be human remains in Dasht-e Leili, while others told of detainees being held for days in overcrowded shipping containers without food, water, or medical care, and, in some instances, being shot while inside the containers.
(…)

Crucially, the International Committee of the Red Cross did not have access to the Taliban detainees at Sheberghan until December 10, 2001 – and thus could not monitor their conditions during the period when the detainees died. This undermines Dostum’s claim that a massacre could not have occurred because the ICRC would have known about it.
(…)
Dostum is correct in one regard: There is a highly politicized atmosphere surrounding the timing of the increased attention to this incident, and that is linked to President Hamid Karzai’s reinstatement of Dostum as the army chief of staff after he had been removed in disgrace last year. Karzai has also nominated as his vice presidential candidate Marshal Fahim, another Northern Alliance commander facing widespread allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes.
(…)
Many Afghans, who have repeatedly demanded truth and accountability for the three decades of atrocities they have endured, have told Amnesty International they are extremely disappointed by the presence of such figures in Karzai’s administration. The ongoing impunity of senior government officials has done much to erode public confidence in the Afghan government, something now readily acknowledged even by international militaries.
(…)
General Dostum has bemoaned the increasing operations of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after seven years of international nation building. It is time to ask: After seven years of appeasing warlords and human rights violators, isn’t it time for the Afghan government and its international supporters to try truth and accountability?

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

Transparency Still an Unfulfilled Promise by President Obama

The Obama Administration has already taken several laudable steps to separate itself from illegal policies and practices of its predecessor, and I applaud them for it.  I’m glad Attorney General Holder released some of the shocking legal memoranda prepared by the Bush Office of Legal Counsel, which authorized blatantly unlawful and unconstitutional acts by the executive branch.  But I choked a bit on Mr. Holder’s statement that “Americans deserve a government that operates with transparency and openness.”  I agree wholeheartedly, but I find this sentiment glaringly at odds with some of the Justice Department’s own recent actions.

In several pending court cases that began before President Obama took office, summarized by blogger Glenn Greenwald, among others, the Obama Justice Department has recently taken positions that appear to embrace the Bush Justice Department’s expansive view of Presidential power.  For example, in a lawsuit brought against the Jeppesen company, a Boeing subsidiary, by five alleged victims of “extraordinary rendition,” the Obama administration invoked the “state secrets” doctrine to keep certain documents out of the hands of the plaintiffs, with the apparent aim of depriving them of their day in court.  In this and other recent cases where Eric Holder’s Justice Department has taken similar positions, no administration official has bothered to offer any explanation for doing so.  So much for transparency and openness!  Yet these actions cry out for an explanation because, on their face, they are so conspicuously at odds with President Obama’s and the Attorney General’s own declared values and promises.

It’s beginning to appear that what we have is a President who disagrees with many of the specific policies and practices of his predecessor but who reserves the right to adopt them himself — or other, possibly equally illegal practices — if he feels the need in the future.  This should serve as another sad reminder of the need to ensure that honoring our obligations under domestic and international law is not left up to the whim of whoever happens to be our President at any given time.  A good first step would be a thorough investigation by an impartial panel of experts into all US government counterterrorism practices since 9/11, in a manner that enables criminal prosecutions to be undertaken where warranted.  Only by demonstrating that lawlessness has serious consequences can we ensure that whether we have a government that obeys the law does not remain a matter of Presidential preference.

Exec Orders – Did you see the part about contractors?

One positive piece of President Obama’s much heralded executive orders that seems to be overlooked in all the excitement is the unambiguous statement that contractor abuses fall within the scope of inquiry and review and that that work will be done by government employees, not contractors.

Companies hired by Defense, State and other agencies of the US government have been involved in almost every stage of the ‘war on terror’, from escorting convoys to building and maintaining facilities to interrogating detainees and providing security to US officials, and all too often with no accountability when implicated in a range of human rights abuses. As Senator Feingold brought to light, contractors were also hired to oversee other contractors at the State Department.

In his executive orders, President Obama (a champion of regulation of security contractors while in the Senate) made clear that only full-time or permanent employees or officers of the United States would be able to:
- Serve on the special task force to identify lawful options for the disposition of detainees
- Review status of individual detainee cases
- Serve on the special task force on interrogation and transfer policies

At the same time, the orders are comprehensive in covering facilities run by, or acts committed by, “agents” of the United States, ie, contractors, to be reviewed.

In a way, the President has proffered crucial first steps on a number of issues. We wanted Guantanamo closed, he’s set a timeline; we’re calling for investigation and accountability, he gave us a nod to transparency in the face of executive privilege; we documented abuses not only by US government officials, but also by the corporate sector, he’s got them covered and ruled them out of oversight functions.

Now it’s time to keep pushing to ensure that doors that are cracked open don’t swing back and slam shut the hope for an end to torture, indefinite detention and attacks against civilians.

What Obama's Presidency Doesn't Say About Race

The media on MLK Day showed us just how far we have to go.

On NBC, The Today Show headlined with contrasting photos of President Obama and….50 Cent. No kidding. Throughout the next hour, they proceeded to offend their thinking viewers by asking who, of the two, has more influence.

NBC insisted on pursuing this nonsense, flashing photos of Obama, walking through the Capitol, meeting with dignitaries, in his suit and tie and 50 Cent, wearing a thin white tank undershirt and rapping surrounded by a partying crowd. They continued their President vs. rapper theme as they welcomed journalist Gwen Ifill for an interview. Today Show host Meredith Vieira tossed her the opening question while moving her hands up and down, like a scale, “So Gwen, Obama or 50 Cent?”

Excuse me? No offense to 50 Cent, but can someone please explain the comparison? As far as I can see, they are both black. And breathing. Beyond that, I’m hard pressed to see the relevance in this comparison that Today wouldn’t let die.

Race no longer an issue? When was the last time a news program compared Bush to Eminem?

Posted in USA

A presidential pardon would not preclude accountability

The worth of a law is in its enforcement; if a law is not enforced, then it has no more value than a platitude, aspiration, or preference.  Because of this reason, one of AIUSA’s CTWJ campaign goals 100 days goals for the new administration is “accountability.”  Or in other words, AIUSA will demand that the government account for illegal or wrongful conduct of its employees or agents in the “war on terror.”

At first glace, a general presidential pardon (which seems likely in some form) threatens the accountability process.  But as I explain below, a pardon will likely only have a limited affect upon accountability.

As a general matter, a pardon precludes the US from prosecuting someone for criminal acts covered by the pardon.  However, accountability comes in many forms, not the least of which is a process resembling a truth commission.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa

 

Congress has authority to summon witnesses to testify in hearings and a pardon does not limit this congressional power.  First, witnesses will have few, if any, 5th amendment rights protecting them from self-incrimination if those witnesses previously received a pardon.  If a witness has immunity, then there is no legal justification for that person to invoke the 5th amendment.  Second, a pardon does not protect a person from prosecution for future crimes.  If a person subject to a pardon refuses to testify, then congress can institute contempt proceedings against that individual.

There is also a question whether a pardon really protects US citizens from criminal liability.  Genocide, torture, or other violations of the law of are grave breaches of international law.  Grave breaches of international law trigger a doctrine called “universal jurisdiction,” meaning a person may be prosecuted by any country that obtains control over the person to be tried.  So, a person subject to a pardon for grave breaches of international law may be immune from prosecution in the US but remain subject to prosecution in any other country.  And if a person has received a presidential pardon but is detained overseas, then that county cannot extradite the American citizen back to the US for prosecution because the US will be precluded from trying the individual in American courts due to the broad application of the pardon.

So while a presidential pardon may create procedural or legal challenges to the accountability process, a pardon will not derail the accountability process.

Get Ready to Close Gitmo and Stop Torture

President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act, October 17, 2006.

President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act, October 17, 2006.

As soon as the next president of the United States is elected, we’ll go live with an action calling on him to take immediate steps in the first 100 days of his term to close Guantanamo, eradicate torture and ill-treatment, and end impunity for human rights abuses.

Stay tuned and be ready to take action. We’ll need you to send emails and write letters to the president-elect.  Check back here or go to www.amnestyusa.org/100days

Need inspiration? Check out The Video the CIA Doesn\’t Want You to See

Want to take action now? Help the Uighurs