Obama re-engages on human rights
President Obama has taken plenty of criticism for downgrading U.S. support for human rights and its defenders. So he should get some credit for what he did yesterday: not just a meeting with Tibet’s Dalai Lama, despite furious rhetoric from China, but a second encounter with a group of two dozen human rights defenders from around the world.
The gathering in the White House’s Roosevelt room included activists from a host of countries where the defense of freedom is a dangerous enterprise: Iran, Belarus, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, among others. More significantly, some were from countries that are U.S. allies, such as Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia. Obama’s State Department has been widely criticized -- and rightly so -- for downgrading support for human rights in those countries; for example, it has allowed Egypt to have a veto over which groups can receive funding under Agency for International Development democracy programs.
Though both meetings were closed, the statements issued afterward suggested that the activists pressed Obama on his record so far. According to a statement issued by Freedom House, one of the organizers of the gathering, they “described the increasing repression against them and encouraged the president to play a greater leadership role in defending fundamental freedoms of association, expression and assembly.”
The Dalai Lama told reporters he was “very happy” with his hour-long session, even though Obama did not publicly appear with him or allow photographs. That was mostly in keeping with the practice of past presidents, though George W. Bush presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol in 2007.
Bush used to meet with dissidents from around the world regularly during his presidency -- it was a small but enduring feature of his “freedom agenda.” Obama seemed to place a lower priority on such outreach during his first year -- he passed up a first chance to meet with the Dalai Lama last year, and he put off other visitors, such as the winners of the National Endowment for Democracy’s annual award, who last year happened to be Afro-Cubans.
It’s easy to dismiss these sessions as meaningless -- but they are not. A White House reception and presidential attention brings dissidents enormous attention, and a degree of protection, in their home countries. It also sends the message that the U.S. president knows and cares about the repression in their countries. So it’s good that Obama took time for yesterday’s meetings. Let’s hope he makes it a regular part of his foreign policy.
| February 19, 2010; 12:19 PM ET
Categories: Diehl | Tags: Jackson Diehl
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