Obama's Speech and the Arab Reaction

In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s speech today in Cairo, the heavy web traffic of discussion among Arab activists was divided essentially into two camps.  One person claimed that the speech could have been given by George W. Bush.  Another compared it to Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem.

It’s not that either opinion is wrong – either may be proved right – but it was the nature of this talk from the very beginning that its meaning won’t be known for years down the road.  For what will make it historic (or not) is not the rhetoric of the speech but the policies that follow it (or don’t).

For one, I don’t believe this was a talk that George W. could have given, although it did share much of the same language on democracy that Bush stubbornly adhered to long after his own policies made shreds of any hope for it.

Midway through Obama’s speech, he digressed to condemn the belief in “a world order that elevates one nation or group of people.”  That is something that the worldview of American exceptionalism held by Bush and many of his presidential predecessors would never agree to.  I hope that this radically different worldview may result in a new path of policies.

And it was promising that Obama addressed a broad range of issues – democracy, women’s rights, Israel and Palestine and economic development – with an understanding that they all affect the human rights situation and all have to be addressed.

One thing that stood out was when it came to economic development, Obama announced a long line of initiatives that hold promise.  But in each of the other areas, particularly on Israel and on democracy, the rhetoric wasn’t matched by specifics.  I hope that doesn’t imply that he thinks that action on economic development is more important than in the other areas.

Amnesty International welcomes Obama’s comments, but we now expect him to follow up with policies to match the rhetoric.  He should begin with ending all practices that make the U.S. complicit in the various abuses that he denounced, such as extraordinary renditions and secret detention.  He should insist that Israel and the PNA to cooperate with the UN’s fact-finding mission looking into violations of international law during the recent Gaza war.  And he provide a public and independent report of America’s war on terror practices, a step he has opposed to date.

These would be just a first step, but an important step.  It would start us on a path that could turn his speech today from a remarkable moment into an historic event.

Obama’s Hotly Anticipated Speech to the Muslim World

Obama's BBC Interview

Obama's BBC Interview

President Obama is due to arrive in Cairo on Thursday to give a hotly anticipated speech to the Muslim world during a five day trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany and France.

His speech is said to be similar to his previous one in Turkey, in which he will reiterate that the US wishes to foster warm relations with Muslim nations and will not, in his words, “simply impose… values on another country with a different history and a different culture.” He also told the BBC he plans to engage in “tough, direct diplomacy”.

This tough and direct diplomacy, though, should entail recognizing and tackling human rights violations in the region, such as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. President Obama has said that while his administration will not impose our American values on other nations, they will encourage universal principles like freedom of speech and religion. He has also said that “part of being a good friend is being honest”.

Now is the perfect time to be honest. This is an important moment for the universal value of human rights in the Middle East, and excuses are not acceptable.

Be sure to take a look at Obama’s full BBC interview regarding the trip here.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Dear President Obama, When you meet with President Peres …

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, flew to the United States to give a speech at the 2009 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) annual conference in Washington DC Monday and to meet with President Obama Tuesday at the White House.  YouTube already has a video of his speech.

Although George Mitchell, Special Envoy to the Middle East who was appointed by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with Israeli officials, this will be the first meeting between President Obama and a high ranking official from the newly established Israeli government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu which is considered ’right-wing’.

 AIUSA asked President Obama to raise the issues of increasing settlement expansion in the West Bank and the eviction of Palestinian families and demolition of homes in east Jerusalem.  Despite repeated U.S. statements condemning the demolitions and settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories, settlement expansion and demolitions continue.  Settlement building/expansion, evictions and demolitions in occupied territory are also illegal under international law.

Demolitions in east Jerusalem have increased dramatically in the last two years with wide swathes of land slated for demolitions.  Settlement expansion which has been in the works for some time is now being given the green light by newly elected government officials. 

Obama has also been asked to follow up on recent events in Gaza.  Despite statements by Sec’y Clinton that goods and humanitarian aid is getting into the Gaza Strip, other sources such as the U.N. and other monitors on the ground continue to report excessive restrictions which continue to keep out spare parts for medical equipment or equipment needed to rebuild, such as bulldozers.

We’ve also asked that Obama urge Israel to cooperate with the investigation being conducted by the team created by the United Nations Human Rights Council and under the leadership of Justice Richard Goldstone, a highly respected war crimes prosecutor.  Justice Goldstone has stated that he will be investigating the allegations of human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict.  The team is currently meeting in Geneva to organize and outline their investigation into war crimes committed during the Gaza crisis.  The government of Israel has publicly stated that they do not plan to cooperate with the team.

Even though the two leaders will be focused on the peace process, human rights are directly linked to any workable resolution.  Both parties must respect the basic human rights of each other and the United States must play a key role in getting all the  parties involved to recognize this basic tenet.

UPDATE May 6, 2009: Video covering comments made at AIPAC conference and responses.