Human Rights Leader Encourages President Obama to Redefine Middle East Strategy in Speech

Washington, D.C. — In anticipation of Thursday’s speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East, Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First, addressed a letter to President Obama urging him to use this speech as an opportunity to lay out an assertive foreign policy that focuses on protecting human rights while bringing democratic change to the region. The letter encourages President Obama to set forth a policy based on the principles highlighted in his 2009 speech at Cairo University, in which the President emphasized a clear, consistent commitment to core principles of human rights in the Middle East. Human Rights First calls for the Administration to strengthen its leadership in the Middle East by applying consistent values to relationships between the United States and the Muslim world. Massimino asks President Obama to “set out a new framework rooted in partnerships with governments that reflect the will of their people and that strive to uphold principles of justice, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” FULL TEXT OF LETTER: Dear President Obama, Your upcoming speech on U.S. policy in a rapidly changing Middle East is an extraordinary opportunity to establish a new framework for securing U.S. national interests in this strategically vital region. I write to urge you to assert a vision for U.S. policy that establishes human rights as the cornerstone of a working partnership between the United States and the Muslim world. In your speech at Cairo University on June 9, 2009, you gave particular emphasis to the importance of moving towards a region of “governments that serve their citizens, and [where] the rights of all God’s children are respected.” You rightly described these goals as “mutual interests” of Americans and people living in majority Muslim countries. Because of the millions of protesters who have taken to the streets from Tunisia to Syria to demand basic rights and freedoms in recent months, you can return to the principles you highlighted in Cairo and set out a new framework rooted in partnerships with governments that reflect the will of their people and that strive to uphold principles of justice, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. The time has come to cast off decades of shady alliances with despotic rulers who delivered superficial stability at the cost of pervasive injustice and corruption and seething resentment from their people directed against their rulers and the United States. In countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is no way back to the authoritarianism, masked by a thin veneer of continually deferred reform, with which the West was comfortable for decades. The liberating–though potentially destabilizing–force of popular protests has been unleashed and will only be contained either by satisfying the legitimate demands of protesters or through repression on an unacceptable scale. The latter would have a devastating impact on U.S. interests, fueling instability and extremism in the region and beyond. Unfortunately, the perception of what kind of leadership the United States offers, and toward what end, is at risk, in part because we appear to be applying our values inconsistently. For example, the world is struggling to understand why the United States appropriately champions the rights of Tunisians and Libyans to live in freedom, but has been virtually silent on the gross violations of human rights of protestors in Bahrain, a vital strategic partner of the United States. The United States cannot afford to be seen as the enemy of tens of millions of Arabs yearning to live in freedom. Rather, this is the moment we should lead. Your speech should present a strategy for advancing human rights and democracy across the region. Anything less will undermine activists, embolden despots and extremists, and strengthen cynicism in the region that the United States uses human rights as little more than a convenience. Such a strategy would not require implementing the same policies in the many diverse country situations, but it does require a clear, consistent commitment to core principles of human rights everywhere. This new approach is a strategic imperative, and must be sustained after you leave office and over the terms of multiple presidencies. It will face many challenges in a volatile region, but at this moment we urge you to emphasize the following elements in your speech: Prioritize Building on Democratic Transformations in Progress in Egypt and Tunisia. Countries where democratic transformation is already underway, like Tunisia and Egypt, provide the greatest opportunities for the U.S. government to work in partnership with Arab counterparts towards common interests of advancing human rights and democracy. The benefits of making progress in these countries would be immense, and the cost of failure would be heavy. In these and other countries genuinely moving forward on a path to reform, the United States should make it a priority to support the building blocks of democracy and the rule of law, such as civil society organizations, mechanisms to hold and monitor elections, efforts to hold previous regimes accountable for their crimes, and support for state institutions such as the police, the courts, and national human rights institutions. Supporting Reformers. In all countries in the region—those in transition, those with regimes friendly to the United States, and those with regimes hostile to the United States—people fighting for freedom need material and moral support from abroad. In its diplomatic dealings with countries in the region, your administration should make support of human rights defenders a guiding priority. Specifically, we urge you to condemn violence against peaceful protestors everywhere, and oppose the prosecutions of non-violent demonstrators. We also encourage you to direct U.S. embassy staff to engage closely with human rights defenders and their families by visiting them in their offices and homes, inviting them to the embassy, and, importantly, observing trials. Protecting Internet Freedom. The uprisings have underscored the catalytic power of the Internet — and the tendency of regimes facing popular protest to limit or curb internet and telecommunications services in efforts to maintain power. Your administration should continue to champion the “freedom to connect”–to use the internet safely to speak, assemble, and obtain information. To that end, it should work with American Internet, telecommunications, and social media companies to resist pressure from repressive governments where possible, and, over the longer term, to promote the establishment of independent regulatory frameworks that support more open markets designed to expand services and the free flow of information. For example, as Egypt rewrites laws governing both traditional telecommunications and new media companies, the Ruling Council should be encouraged to engage civil society, business leaders, and other stakeholders to create a framework that promotes a more vibrant telecommunications sector and a regulatory environment that protects fundamental freedoms of expression and privacy. Improving Economic Conditions. The revolts in the region are a reaction not just to human rights abuses but also to terrible economic conditions for large proportions of the populations. Senators Kerry, McCain, and Lieberman have proposed legislation that would strengthen the private sector in Tunisia and Egypt, employing the kind of enterprise funds that helped the Central European economies in the 1990s. This bill is important, but to ensure that poverty and joblessness do not undermine the transition to democracy, the United States should be prepared to bolster the Egyptian and Tunisian economies with further assistance. Failure to adequately support the economies of states transitioning to democracy would be a false savings for the United States. The costs of failure will be far greater, and the benefits of a successful outcome would more than repay any sums expended on a support package. We hope your speech is an opportunity to roll out a U.S. assistance package for Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries working toward democracy. Maximizing Regional and International Support for Positive Change. Ensuring the success of democratic transformation in the Middle East and North Africa serves the interests of many countries, especially those across the Mediterranean Sea in Europe and countries like Turkey and Israel that neighbor Arab countries in turmoil. Working together with its allies, the United States can greatly enhance its capacities to influence events. Mr. President, the principles you emphasized in your speech in Cairo almost two years ago are the right ones for this moment of great challenge and opportunity for the United States in the Middle East. Events are unpredictable; there will be new developments ahead that require specific responses. But policies guided by partnerships with governments that reflect the will of their people and consistently strive to advance universal principles of human rights and justice will over time best serve the vital national interests of the United States. We look forward to your continued leadership and stand ready to support you in this work. Sincerely, Elisa Massimino President and CEO


Published on May 17, 2011


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