Weak Human Rights Promotion Contributes to Policy Failures in the Middle East

Normally when a senior U.S. official visits a country where serious violations of human rights are taking place, that official can be expected to raise some concerns about them with the host. Yet such expressions of concern were notably absent during Vice President Biden’s visit to Turkey last week, despite the government’s ongoing violations of human rights, including mass detention, torture, severe restrictions on freedom of press, and many more.

This striking omission is just the latest example of the Obama Administration’s almost complete retreat from engaging allies in the Middle East to promote respect for human rights and improved governance.

In recent years, human rights conditions in Egypt, the Gulf monarchies, and Turkey have deteriorated alarmingly. The administration has chosen to look away from these destructive practices, even while human rights violations  are contributing to regional instability, and run counter to many policy statements on the region that have emphasized the need for political reform and improved human rights conditions to produce lasting stability.

For example, Obama’s countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy identifies human rights violations and poor governance as drivers of violent extremism. He has admonished governments to reform and end violations in order to be effective partners in the global struggle against terrorism and violent extremism. But he has failed to follow up on such admonishments with meaningful action, and in some cases stopped speaking up all together.

Vice President Biden had an almost impossible task when he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan in Ankara last week. All he managed to do was apologize that the U.S. government did not respond “with the appropriate amount of solidarity and compassion and empathy” to the attempted coup against the Turkish government. He apologized for not visiting sooner and reassured President Erdogan of the United States’ “unwavering support.”

Biden had to endure a lecture from President Erdogan about the United States harboring the man the Turkish government believes was behind the coup, the exiled religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan repeatedly referred to as a terrorist.

Underlying this awkward exchange were not so veiled Turkish suspicions that the U.S. government might have had some role, or at least some foreknowledge, of the coup. The Turkish press has been full of such theories, and President Erdogan himself has fed them by repeatedly emphasizing that the United States is harboring the coup leader and therefore supporting terrorism.

President Erdogan did not invent these conspiracy theories out of nothing. Turkey has a long history of military interventions in politics. Vice President Biden mentioned in his remarks that the U.S. government “didn’t get on so well with previous military states” in Turkey.

Erdogan almost certainly has a different view. He must be aware that after the 1960 military coup against the democratically elected Menderes government, the U.S. Ambassador visited the coup leader, General Gursel, and praised the coup’s efficiency and rapidity, while not mentioning concerns about thedamage it would inflict on Turkish democracy.

More recently, President Erdogan has been a strident critic of the coup that removed President Morsi from power in Egypt in 2013 and installed former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his place. Turkey has provided a base for exiled Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders and continues to criticize the Sisi government for the widespread repression that followed the toppling of the Morsi government. At a funeral for some of the victims of Turkish coup attempt, President Erdogan gave a four-finger salute, the symbol of remembrance for the hundreds of people killed in Cairo on August 14, 2013, when Egyptian security forces broke up protest camps set up by Morsi supporters in city squares.

The Obama Administration went to great pains not to refer to Sisi’s takeover in Egypt as a coup, and just a few weeks after President Morsi’s forced removal from office Secretary of State Kerry asserted that Sisi and the Egyptian military were “restoring democracy” in Egypt—a bizarre formulation that he continues to repeat.

The Obama Administration has developed an unfortunate habit of sacrificing human rights promotion in exchange for other interests. The problem is that neglecting human rights and democracy promotion undermines efforts to achieve the security and stability goals that it claims to prioritize. Frustratingly, the administration defines this problem in its own policy statements, but fails to act accordingly.

President Obama inherited a Middle East region dominated by authoritarian rulers with poor human rights records, mired in unresolved conflicts and instability. After eight years in office, conflicts and instability have spread and human rights conditions have worsened almost everywhere.

These bitter outcomes point to the conclusion that what Tamara Cofman Wittes describes as “persistent engagement on behalf of the messy, imperfect and always incomplete work of democratic growth” must be part of a more successful U.S. policy approach towards the Middle East.

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Published on August 31, 2016

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