Human rights groups are beginning to question President Obama’s commitment to their issue as the administration engages authoritarian regimes, retains the option of sending terrorist suspects abroad to places where they might be tortured and puts off a presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Mr. Obama’s decision to wait until after he visits China in November to meet with the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists - who was on Capitol Hill Tuesday receiving an award - comes after a series of decisions that have underlined a classic tension in U.S. foreign policy between the head and the heart.
While Mr. Obama campaigned for the White House by promising to restore American values, he also vowed to talk with governments that had been shunned by his predecessor. Now, those promises are bumping against each other.
“There has not been sufficient attention paid within this administration on how to counter the major challenges to human rights that we face today,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “We see authoritarian regimes like China, Iran and Egypt and others getting granted opportunities for dialogue and engagement, but it’s not clear from the outside how human rights concerns will be addressed in that engagement.”
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said he favors the engagement policy but also has concerns.
“The president’s larger emphasis on engagement - that you should be talking to even those regimes that you hate the most - tends to empower those in the diplomatic corps whose core approach is making nice and handing out gold stars,” he said.
“I am not against the engagement strategy, [but] they need to make it clear that engagement only works when there is pressure.” he said.
However, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two Republican presidents, said public scolding of repressive regimes sometimes backfires.
“I think to preach to people tends to make them less likely to want to do what you want, just because if they do, they run the risk of their own people saying they are kowtowing to the United States,” he said.
Mr. Obama took particular flak for not meeting with the Dalai Lama during his annual visit to Washington.
China sees U.S. high-level meetings with the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959, as implying support for Tibetan independence.
On Tuesday, the spiritual leader was the first person awarded the promotion of human rights prize named after the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California. Lantos arranged the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Congress in 1987.
The Dalai Lama’s special envoy, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, suggested that the Tibetan leader had taken no offense at the president’s decision not to meet with him now.
“Taking a broader and long-term perspective, His Holiness agreed to meet the president after the November U.S.-China summit,” he said. The White House also agreed to send a high-level delegation headed by senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama is based. This, Mr. Gyari said, “indicates a new approach on Tibet by the U.S. administration.”
Beyond the Tibetan issue, criticism has focused on U.S. policy toward Sudan.