While President Obama takes plenty of heat over his plans to overhaul domestic policies, critics have also taken aim at his foreign policy approach, particularly as it relates to human rights around the globe.
Human Rights Watch advocacy director Tom Malinowski said Wednesday that while the administration appeared to have “gotten the balance right” on Myanmar, the military junta-ruled Asian nation formerly known as Burma, by starting a dialogue while maintaining sanctions, “China is a different matter.” “And that’s where we’ve seen the tension play out in the most acute way, with several signals that have been sent suggesting that the administration is putting human rights issues to one side,” Malinowski said on CNN’s “Amanpour.” “And most recently, the, I think, symbolic mistake of the president declining to meet the Dalai Lama before his own visit to China later next month.” The Tibetan spiritual leader, who fled to India in 1959 and established a government in exile there, visited the United States earlier this month. China considers Tibet a renegade province and accuses the Dalai Lama of inciting violence. The timing of a presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama is considered largely symbolic, and Malinowski said the president’s delay “sent a message to the Chinese government that perhaps this isn’t as high a priority for the United States as it has been in the past.” Malinowski also criticized the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. J. Scott Gration, who had suggested wooing the Sudanese government with “cookies” and “gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement” to change its attitude about Darfur, where genocide and famine have killed hundreds of thousands of people.
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“It’s a really dumb thing to say,” said Malinowski, who previously served in the administration of President Clinton. “Governments like this, they are not children, and they do not react to cookies and gold stars,” he said. “They act on their interests, and historically, as you know from Bosnia, to all the places where we have successfully defeated this kind of violence, governments respond to pressure.” Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a candidate for re-election next year, has been indicted on war-crimes charges by the International Criminal Court. Despite Gration’s comments, the Obama administration has not yet articulated a Sudan policy. But Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group and a former U.N. human rights commissioner, told “Amanpour” that talking rather than pressuring governments over human rights can be beneficial. “If you have a policy of engagement, which I think very much is the one put forward by the Obama administration, you may give an impression that you’re softening,” said Arbour, who is also a former war crimes prosecutor. “It’s very easy to look tough, right You don’t talk to anybody, you repudiate everything, you slam all the doors and you accomplish nothing, or very little. And we have a lot of precedence for that. “When you have a policy of reinforcing diplomatic initiatives, engagement, it may look soft, because you have to put on the table a multiplicity of issues, not just a single one. But on balance, I think there’s more chance on some of these … all important initiatives than just by looking tough and achieving nothing.” Arbour added, however, that the engagement approach to human rights abuses will not create fast change from the abusive regimes. Noting the glacial pace of transformation in Myanmar, where democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been held under house arrest for nearly two decades, Arbour said “it’s going to be very slow.” “You can’t have 20 years of extremely adversarial, confrontational posturing, and then say, well, we’re ready to talk and be friendly, and assume that the other side’s going to roll over,” she said. “It’s just not going to work that way.” “There have to be very slow processes, but I think Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been encouraging more engagement. She wants to have contact with the junta and with foreigners, and it’s happening. These are small steps. They’re certainly in the right direction.”