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Advocates worry Obama easing human rights stand

March 15, 2009

The Associated Press

Friday, March 13, 2009

WASHINGTON: Human rights advocates fear the Obama administration may be
putting the issue on the back burner to focus instead on coping with the
global economic crisis and national security.

President Barack Obama sought the moral high ground on human rights with
his early order to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba, and declaration that the United States would never again torture

Those moves, which won nearly unanimous international praise, were made
nearly immediately after Obama took office as he sought to repair the
U.S. image abroad, correcting what he believed were mistaken Bush
administration policies that had left the United States on the
diplomatic outs with much of the world, even with some traditional allies.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dulled the luster, rights advocates
say, when she said during a trip to Asia that the administration remains
deeply concerned about human rights in China but cannot let that
interfere with cooperation with Beijing on the worldwide economic crisis
and the fight to ease global climate change.

"We fear she may be setting this tone as a signal to the rest of the
world that human rights are not going to be one of the main issues for
the administration," said T. Kumar, Amnesty International advocacy
director for Asia. "Trade and security should not be promoted at the
expense of human rights."

Clinton did have a different message Thursday after a Washington meeting
with China's foreign minister, noting that she and Yang Jiechi had a
significant engagement on human rights and the situation in Tibet.

"Human rights is part of our comprehensive dialogue" with China, she
said. "It doesn't take a front seat, a back seat or a middle seat. It is
part of the broad range of issues that we are discussing."

Beyond China, however, there is a considerable list of Obama positions
that have raised doubts about how far the new president will shift from
the policies of his predecessor.

_The administration has filed a legal brief that echoed former President
George W. Bush's position in maintaining that detainees in Afghanistan
have no constitutional rights and arguing that enemy combatants held
there at Bagram Air Field cannot use U.S. courts to challenge their

_Government lawyers continued to invoke the state secrets law in a
federal court case that involves the CIA's extraordinary rendition
program, in which U.S. operatives seized foreign suspects and handed
them over to other countries for questioning. The law blocks the release
of evidence the government deems secret and potentially harmful to U.S.

_The administration is feeling out Uzbekistan, which has one of the
worst human rights records among the former Soviet republics, about
using an air base to provide supplies and troops to Afghanistan. The
move became necessary after neighboring Kyrgyzstan declared it was
canceling the U.S. lease for a base in that Central Asian country.

_Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently scaled back expectations in
Afghanistan greatly, declaring the United States was not going to be
able to leave behind anything close to a Western-style democracy. The
U.S. rationale for its seven-year engagement in the country rested
partly on having driven the Taliban from power. The Islamic
fundamentalists ran a brutal regime that was particularly harsh in its
treatment of women. The Obama administration said recently that it was
ready to approach Taliban members who are willing to work with the
U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

Those and other rights issues trouble advocates, but they emphasize
Clinton's very public remarks regarding China.

"Part of her challenge diplomatically is going to be able to work on
many fronts," said Amnesty International's Curt Goering. "The United
States cannot be credible on any issue unless it remains credible on
human rights."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked this week about comments by
the Dalai Lama, the revered leader of Tibetan Buddhists who fled to
exile as Tibet's 1959 uprising against Chinese rule collapsed. The Dalai
Lama said Tibetans were living in "hell on Earth" because of Chinese

"The United States respects the territorial integrity of China and
considers Tibet to be part of China," Gibbs said. "At the same time,
we're concerned about the human rights situation in Tibet."

Gibbs noted that Washington believes the Chinese government increased
cultural and religious repression in Tibetan areas last year, and urged
Beijing to engage in further negotiations with the exiled leader.

"We believe that substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama's
representatives that makes progress and brings about solutions to
long-standing issues is the best way to achieve true and lasting
stability in Tibet," Gibbs said, in a muted response to the perennial
and fundamental human rights sore point.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood also rebutted the criticism in
response to a Washington Post editorial that said Clinton "continues to
devalue and undermine the U.S. diplomatic tradition of human rights

Wood said: "She realizes you have to sit down with, for example, her
Chinese counterpart and make these points on human rights. But she also
knows that's not necessarily going to get you what you want at the end
of the day, so you've got to find new and creative ways to influence the
human rights situation in China and that's what she's trying to do."

Obama and Clinton are likely to face even stiffer criticism as they move
forward with a policy designed to repair the global standing of the
United States. They are trying to show world leaders that Washington is
once again determined to engage the world through diplomacy rather than
what critics saw as the Bush administration's tendency to rely on diktat.

The mission appears to be especially delicate when it comes to human
rights, an issue that stands to block linkage with a number of countries
unless the administration finds a way to finesse it by maintaining
Washington's historic standards while not using them as a blunt instrument.
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