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The Downfall of Human Rights

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
March 1, 2010


Touring Asia in November, Barack Obama hit all the usual presidential themes, including free trade, investment, and strategic alliances, except for one: human rights. During a scripted press conference in Beijing, Obama barely mentioned it. In Shanghai he offered only mild criticism of China's Internet blocks, saying he was a "big supporter of noncensorship." Obama's nonstatements amount to a clear break from nearly three decades of U.S. policy. From its engagement with the brutal Burmese junta to its decision to avoid the Dalai Lama when he first visited Washington during Obama's tenure to its silence over the initial outbreak of protests in Iran, Obama's administration has taken a much quieter approach to rights advocacy than his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "Conceding to China upfront doesn't buy you better cooperation further down the track," says Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch.

Obama's waffling was hardly unique. Across Europe, Asia, and Latin America, many democracies have abandoned global human-rights advocacy, trotting it out only for occasional speeches or events like International Human Rights Day. With the prominent exception of Canada, the developed world has fallen mum. Earlier this year European nations handed the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, one of the major organizations tasked with promoting human rights in Eurasia, to Kazakhstan, a country accused by human-rights groups of arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture. In Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has promised a new dialogue with North Korea, rather than pressuring Pyongyang to first release alleged Japanese abductees.

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