By Alemayehu G Mariam
Is the Obama Administration’s human rights policy a “farce”?
Last week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a “terrorist” criminal and called Assad’s electoral plans a “farce”. “Assad’s is making partnership with terrorist elements, attracting terrorists and engaging in terrorist activities against his own people.” Assad’s planned presidential elections are “staged elections [that] are a farce. They’re an insult. They are a fraud on democracy, on the Syrian people and on the world.”
I do not doubt that Assad is a scourge on the Syrian people and one of the top five criminals against humanity in the Twenty-First Century. In May 2007, in a single-candidate referendum, Bashar was “elected” president for a second seven-year term “winning” 97.6 percent of the votes. At that time, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “The United States is concerned by reports that the Syrian regime has used intimidation to restrict the candidate pool and threats of reprisal to discourage political dissent. President al-Assad is again denying the right of the Syrian people to an open, transparent and fully participatory political environment.” There is nothing new about Assad’s “farcical staged elections”.
In March 2011, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the bloodthirsty Assad (who massacred thousands of Syrian civilians using chemical weapons at least 14 times since last October). “There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” In less than three years, Assad the “reformer” had morphed into Assad the “terrorist” and genocider.
Kerry’s condemnatory words against Assad raise parallel questions in my mind. Could it be reasonably said that the Obama Administration’s human rights policy is diplomatically “staged” and a “farce”? Is it a “fraud [perpetrated] on the world”? Is it “an insult to humanity” and human rights? Does the Obama Administration practice human rights diplomacy by hypocrisy or “diplocrisy”, (a neologism I coined to describe the barefaced hypocrisy of the Administration’s global human rights policy)? One should be careful pointing an accusatory index finger at others unmindful that three fingers are pointing at him.
In April 2013, Secretary Kerry dismissed the election of Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela. Maduro won that election by a razor thin margin of 50.66 percent of the votes. When opposition leader Henrique Capriles demanded a recount, Kerry chimed in. “We think there ought to be a recount… Obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that [Maduro] government.” White House spokesman Jay Carney also issued a statement calling for a recount of all the votes.
When Zimbabwe held its presidential election in August 2013, Kerry said, “Make no mistake: in light of substantial electoral irregularities reported by domestic and regional observers, the United States does not believe that the results announced today represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people… The balance of evidence indicates that today’s announcement was the culmination of a deeply flawed process.” Mugabe “won” that “election” by 61 percent of the votes.
In May 2010 when the late Meles Zenawi claimed 99.6 percent victory in the parliamentary elections, the U.S. brushed it off with the obligatory expression of “concern” and “disappointment”. White House National Security Spokesman Mike Hammer said, “We are concerned that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments. We are disappointed that U.S. Embassy officials were denied accreditation and the opportunity to travel outside of the capital on Election Day to observe the voting. The limitation of independent observation and the harassment of independent media representatives are deeply troubling. An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place even before Election Day…” Was the 2010 “parliamentary election” in Ethiopia a “staged election that was a farce”? Was it “an insult and a fraud on democracy, on the Ethiopian people and on the world”?
I admit that there could be no beauty contest among warthogs but it is noteworthy that the U.S. condemned Bashar for “winning” the presidency by 97.6 percent of the votes in a single-candidate referendum while turning a blind eye to Meles Zenawi’s parliamentary electoral victory by 99.6 percent in a “multiparty election”.
Understanding the Obama human rights doctrine
The Obama doctrine on human rights seems pretty straightforward. Human rights policy making is essentially a choice between the lesser of two (d)evils. The world is full of nasty “S.O.Bs” like Assad, Mugabe and Maduro who commit crimes against humanity. Then there are nice “S.O.Bs” like Egypt’s el-Sisi, Uganda’s Museveni, Rwanda’s Kagame and the late Meles Zenawi who commit crimes against humanity as a pastime. The difference between the two sets of (d)evils is that the latter are our “S.O.B.s”. They do our bidding. IN return, they get free passes. We give them billions of dollars in handouts every year.
In 2008, candidate Obama lamented the pervasive “cynicism” in the “conventional foreign policy thinking in Washington”. He said “one of the enemies we have to fight [is] not just terrorists,… it’s also cynicism.” Six years into his presidency, Obama’s supporters in the human rights community believe he has thrown them right under the Cynicism Bus. Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, recently observed, “President Obama has disappointed many by failing to make human rights a priority.” His “readiness to compromise” on critical human rights issues “leaves the impression that he is not committed to the human rights ideal.” It seems Obama has forgotten “that people around the world share a common desire for freedom and respect for their rights.”
When President Obama visited Accra, Ghana in 2009, he told young Africans that “History is on the side of brave Africans’. He assured them, “You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people.” Recently, Obama had a chance encounter with one of those young and brave Africans from Ethiopia who reminded him of the high price exacted by the “enemy” called “cynicism”. At a San Jose, California fundraiser, Ethiopian-born journalist and activist Abebe Gelaw had the following exchange with President Obama as posted on the official White House website:
[Abebe Gelaw] AUDIENCE MEMBER: President Obama! Freedom for Ethiopia! Freedom! Freedom for Ethiopia, sir!
THE PRESIDENT: Hold on. I agree with you, although why don’t I talk about it later because I’m just about to finish. (Laughter.) You and me, we’ll talk about it. I’m going to be coming around.
[Abebe Gelaw]AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Inaudible)–
THE PRESIDENT: There you go.
[Abebe Gelaw] AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Inaudible) —
THE PRESIDENT: I agree with you.
[Abebe Gelaw] AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Inaudible.)
THE PRESIDENT: I want to hear from you.
[Abebe Gelaw] AUDIENCE MEMBER: We love you!
THE PRESIDENT: I love you back. You kind of screwed up my ending, but that’s okay. (Laughter and applause.) That’s okay. And we’ve got free speech in this country — (applause) — which is great, too.
Thank God we have freedom of speech in America. An ordinary journalist and human rights activist can stand up and freely speak up to the President of the United States without fear of arrest, detention, persecution or torture. Bothe President Obama and Abebe were speaking in the same sentiments. President Obama joked that Abebe had “screwed up the ending” of his speech. Abebe was seriously protesting that Obama’s policy had “screwed up” his country of birth.
The important fact is that the most powerful man in the world and an ordinary citizen could face off on the world stage because they both believe in freedom, particularly the freedom of speech. IN contrast, the millions of Abebe Gelaws in Ethiopia for whom Abebe Gelaw lifted his voice in San Jose do not have freedom of speech or of religion, or the right to assemble or petition for grievances. That’s is why Abebe shouted out, “President Obama! Freedom for Ethiopia!”
I do not doubt that President Obama agrees there should be freedom of speech and other freedoms in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa. The question is the disconnect between his lofty words of freedom and his unwavering support for African dictators. If Obama truly believes in freedom of speech in Ethiopia, why doesn’t he (or his Secretary of State, ambassadors and representatives) exercise his freedom of speech and call for the release of imprisoned Ethiopian journalists and bloggers such as Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Asmamaw Hailegeorgis, eelancers Tesfalem Waldyes, Edom Kassaye, Abel Wabella, Atnaf Berhane, Mahlet Fantahun, Natnail Feleke, Zelalem Kibret, and Befekadu Hailu, to name just a few.
Obama surely must know freedom ain’t free. Talk of freedom is cheap. It is a dime a dozen. Freedom is priceless; and in Ethiopia freedom comes at an extremely high price in Ethiopia. Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and the others are paying up for their freedom by sacrificing their liberties. They languish in jails that are an insult to humanity; their very existence is a crime against humanity. Nearly 200 unarmed protesters in 2005 paid for their freedom with their lives. Tens of thousands paid for their lived over a quarter century of tyranny. Their killers today cling to the highest offices in the land. It is no exaggeration to say Obama keeps them in office by handing them billions of dollars every year. Dambissa Moyo, the noted African economist and author of “Dead Aid” reports that, “in Ethiopia a whopping 97 percent of the government’s budget derives from foreign aid.” The U.S. is the sugar daddy of the dictatorial regime in Ethiopia! Ninety million Ethiopians today are paying for their basic humanity by suffering the indignities, injustice and abuse of a gang of vicious thugs and corrupt ignoramuses palming themselves off as leaders.
It is impossible to distinguish between Obama’s human rights policies and principles from his human rights palaver. He drew an imaginary “red line” for Assad and told him not to cross it by using chemical weapons of mass destruction against the Syrian people. Just over the past several months, Assad has used such weapons at least 14 times. For African dictators, Obama has given them the green light to go through the red light of human rights criminality.
If the Obama Administration does not have true commitment to enforcement of human rights principles, why does it bother to make grandiose statements that create the audacity of hope in the minds and hearts of millions of oppressed peoples throughout the world? Does the Administration believe that people are stupid and dumb and are unable to see the incongruity between his words and actions? Why does Obama make statements on human rights that make him look duplicitous, hypocritical and cynical? Could it be that Obama really believes that African thugtators in time will be born again into liberal democrats with the proper amount of human rights evangelization? Do dandelions grow up to be roses?
A proposal for a U.S. human rights and human wrongs policy
Obama is said to be a “realist” in foreign policy. His “Realpolitik” subordinates moral and political values to strategic national interests and practical considerations. In other words, he will talk a good human rights and human wrongs talk, but when push comes to shove, he will sacrifice human rights at the altar of human wrongs. He will talk about ending tyranny and establishing democracy in the world but never at the cost of short-term narrow conceptions of American national interest.
As a realist, Obama must formulate a “U.S. human wrongs policy”, at least for Africa, founded on the principle that given the massive and unending violations of internationally recognized human rights in Africa, the U.S. could not realistically formulate and implement a human rights policy. The basic tenets of a “realist” “U.S. human wrongs policy” would be based on the following simple propositions:
Africa is simply not worthy of human rights as imagined or practiced in the West.
“Stability and peace” are the utmost and paramount concerns of U.S. policy in Africa. Crimes against humanity by African leaders will be ignored to the extent that such crimes could result in destabilization and conflict. (For instance, Silva Kir and Reik Machar in South Sudan will be absolved of any liability for all of the crimes they committed including murder, extermination, forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, rape and ethnic genocide.)
Stealing elections, corruption and abuse of power in Africa will be tolerated so long as African regimes fully support U.S. global and regional interests including the U.S. “war on terror”.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four essential freedoms for people “everywhere in the world” are no longer applicable to Africa. Roosevelt’s vision for the principles of U.S. engagement with a brave free world facing the darkness of tyranny shall be modified and qualified. “We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world (except in Africa). The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world (except in Africa). The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world (except in Africa). The fourth is freedom from fear… [so] that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world (except in Africa).
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all of the other human rights conventions that have been spawned by the Declaration shall be practiced everywhere in the world, except in Africa.
I believe a real realist and practitioner of “Realpolitik” in U.S. human rights policy will openly embrace the foregoing principles of a U.S. human wrongs policy. Human rights advocates and human rights abusers will have a clear understanding of U.S. values, principles and policies in Africa. There will be no misunderstandings and miscommunications about the intentions or aims of U.S. policy in Africa. Human rights advocates will have little to say on a U.S. human wrongs policy. They will have to bite their lips. Most of all, Africa’s dictators will get the just recognition they deserve for their loyal service. The U.S. cannot pretend not to know them the morning after the sleepover.
* Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.