Roth on Obama's human rights record

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Photo credit: 
Jin Zhu for the Stanford Daily

On April 13, Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch discussed Obama's human rights record to an audience of over 125 students and faculty, marking Roth's first speaking engagement at Stanford University. This event was hosted by the Program on Human Rights at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and was the final installment of the Sanela Diana Jenkins International Human Rights Speaker Series.

David Abernethy, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stanford University, introduced Roth and provided a detailed overview of his professional background and the stunning growth and impact Human Rights Watch has witnessed since Roth took the helm in 1993. Under Roth's leadership and strategic direction, Human Rights Watch tripled in size, expanding its reach to over 90 countries worldwide. 

"Human rights Watch does a remarkable job in combining carefully documented facts with advocacy for a better world, including naming and shaming egregious violators of universally accepted norms," said Abernethy, in emphasizing the courageous work Human Rights Watch pioneers on a global scale.

Abernethy noted that Human Rights Watch is a "is a north, south, east, west NGO, directed towards all points on the compass and operating from all those points, as a truly globalized institution."

At the outset of his comments, Roth framed President Obama's human rights record as a desire to abandon the principles of the George W. Bush administration and embrace an approach that is in stark contrast to the Bush years of unilateral diplomacy.

Obama has evolved -- it has been a journey from being not George Bush to being himself.
- Kenneth Roth

Since assuming office in 2009, Roth noted, "Obama has evolved -- it has been a journey from being not George Bush to being himself."

Roth highlighted the differences between both presidents, emphasizing the fact that, "most significantly in terms of contrast, Obama was going to lead by example," Roth said. "He was going to have a domestic policy that he and we could be proud of and that would persuade others just by virtue of what the US did itself."

In reflecting on the evolution of Obama's approach to human rights since assuming office, Roth saw Obama moving from rhetoric to practice. Roth cited a number of examples where the Obama administration delivered substantially on their commitment to defend these principles and others where they had fallen short.

In terms of multilateral promotion of human rights, Roth discussed how the Obama administration supported the efforts of the United Nation's Human Rights Council by successfully lobbying for the U.S. to become a member and helping to revive the Council into a more effective body in holding governments accountable. 

According to Roth, "the Council has introduced tough resolutions on Libya, the Ivory Coast, Iran, and revived this tool and the ability of a group of a government's peers to condemn it."

Roth also mentioned how the Obama administration has been a key player in supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC) by voting in favor of referring Libya to the ICC, arresting the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in the Congo, and exerting pressure on Sudan to surrender President Bashir.

These actions, Roth maintained, "strengthened a key international institution designed to stop the impunity that lies behind so many of the world's worst atrocities."

While, Roth thought Obama had certainly struck a much more modest tone on the world stage than Bush, he did stress that Obama had retained the option of humanitarian intervention and is not afraid to use military force when necessary, highlighting the recent examples of Libya and Cote d'Ivoire.

Roth believed that Obama's biggest shift was towards China's human rights record. In 2009, Obama was hesitant to exert pressure on the Chinese concerning their human rights practice, which proved to be an ineffective strategy in advancing US interests. Since the January 2011 China summit in Washington, Obama dramatically reasserted himself, calling on China to expand human rights protections and realized "human rights is not a dangerous topic."

In surveying the Obama administration's policy in the Middle East and North Africa, Roth judged it as "inconsistent" toward the recent pro-democracy movements where strategic concerns have sometimes outweighed more ideological ones.

In Egypt, Roth believed the administration took too long to take an active stand against Mubarak in support of the protesters, but eventually came around to prove they were "better late than never."

Similarly in Yemen, Roth described the administration as hesitant to initially oppose President Saleh because it jeopardized their relationship with an important counter-terrorism ally.

In Bahrain, Roth explained that the administration refuses to take an active stance and continues to discuss the possibility of reconciliation in light of the flagrant human rights abuses committed at the hands of the Bahraini regime. Roth claimed that Obama is acting in the best interest of the US's Saudi partners who are "terrified" at the prospect of a Shiite revolution in Bahrain. 

Roth characterized the administration's position towards Israel as a "predictable disappointment," in that the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution classifying the settlements as a violation of international law and rejected the Goldstone report, refusing to recognize the positive aspects of this comprehensive investigation of the war in Gaza.

On domestic policies, Roth commended Obama's immediate effort to end the Bush policy of torture and shutter the CIA secret detention facilities, but was disappointed that Obama refused to prosecute the Bush torturers and investigate where the torture took place. 

Roth described the issue of long-term detention without trial as a work in progress, believing that Obama's hesitation to release a core group of 48 prisoners in Guantanamo stemmed from his concerns about potential future acts of terrorism. 

In closing, Roth was optimistic about Obama's evolution over the past two years, noting the great strides he has taken to actively implement his values in US human rights policy. However, he was cautious in highlighting the tensions that exist between US interests and human rights, claiming that Obama still has a ways to go in striking a better balance between the two.

This event was a rare opportunity for the CDDRL community to hear from a leading investigator and critic of human rights abuses, committed to reducing human suffering on a global scale.