- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

The Obama administration’s first global report on human rights differed little from the reports issued during President George W. Bush’s second term, with the most notable exception being stepped-up criticism of the Iraqi government.

In the latest example of similarities between President Obama and Mr. Bush on foreign policy, Iran and China topped a list of 25 countries chided in the State Department’s annual human rights report for imposing “draconian” new restrictions on free expression and political rights in 2009.

“In a significant number of countries, governments have imposed new and often draconian restrictions on” nongovernmental organizations, the department said in its “Year in Review” section, highlighting global human rights trends and highlighting China, Russia, Venezuela and others.

The report, released Thursday, is the first to have been worked on exclusively since the election of Mr. Obama, who criticized the Bush administration during the 2008 campaign as arrogant and high-handed in dealing with foreign governments and said he’d repair the U.S. image abroad. After eight often testy years dealing with Mr. Bush, European officials thought Mr. Obama would change the world to their liking, but now realize that any American president will act in his country’s interests first.

Although he has changed some features of U.S. foreign policy, such as missile defense, Mr. Obama has not met his vow of closing the detention facility for terrorism suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year, plans to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq for several more years, has ramped up the war in Afghanistan, and has overseen “continuity” in several other foreign-policy areas, such as North Korea, Latin America and NATO expansion, diplomats and analysts said.

“We are in a period of managing down some unrealistic expectations about what the administration was going to do,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs during Mr. Bush’s first term.

Although the State Department’s human rights reports, which are mandated by Congress and written mostly by career State Department employees, tend not to differ too much from year to year, a particular administration can emphasize some things and play down others.

Actual differences are usually reflected in specific policies, analysts said.

“How or whether these reports actually affect policy is the big question,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Change will require more than just rhetoric. Reports’ findings should be formally integrated into decision-making processes that incorporate respect for human rights as a criterion.”

Mr. Cox also noted the Obama White House’s continuity with Bush-era anti-terrorism policies and reluctance to prosecute Bush-era officials, and he said they undermined the State Department report and other U.S. critics of human rights abuses.

“Skeptics will dismiss the reports as rhetoric and hypocrisy, as the Obama administration has not held anyone accountable for the human rights abuses committed by U.S. agents in the war on terror,” he said.

“Amnesty International urges the U.S. government to strive for even greater collaboration with U.S. civil society, both in preparing its report to the [U.N. Security Council], and in implementing the council’s subsequent recommendations,” Mr. Cox said.

The report mostly stated facts, with few major changes or sweeping rhetorical moves, likely reflecting that the world doesn’t change much and does not do so in accord with the U.S. electoral cycle.

On Israel, for example, the 2009 and 2007 reports are almost word-for-word identical, though the latest document mentioned the Jewish state’s Gaza operation, in which civilians on both sides were killed.

In one of its major departures though, the new report appeared more critical than before of the Iraqi government, not making the same caveats as the Bush-era reports did when they also criticized human rights abuses under post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi governments.

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