WASHINGTON: Hours after the last American troops and diplomats left Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said in a speech at the White House that Washington will continue to support Afghans left behind and defend their basic rights, especially those of women and men. girls.
“I have made it clear that human rights will be at the center of our foreign policy,” he said, repeating a campaign promise he has made often in speeches since taking office on January 20.
The comment fueled growing skepticism among critics, who argued that the United States had abandoned those same people to the Taliban, a brutal group with a history of crushing women’s rights in the name of its radical interpretation of Islam.
A review of the Biden administration’s track record thus far shows that human rights concerns have repeatedly been sidelined in favor of national security priorities and to ensure continued engagement with foreign powers.
Defenders say Biden has struck at crucial moments.
In the Middle East, support for authoritarians like Egypt’s general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has continued despite rhetoric about democracy and human rights, advocates say.
In Saudi Arabia, the administration released internal intelligence linking Crown Price and the de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but stood aside from any action against the crown prince himself.
In Myanmar, the administration denounced the military coup and issued sanctions against its generals, but left an important source of revenue for the board alone: offshore natural gas projects involving international companies, including US oil company Chevron.
And in at least one high-level meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, concerns about human rights and press freedom were sidelined over other issues, sources familiar with the meeting told Reuters.
While advocates say the Biden administration has placed much more emphasis on promoting human rights than that of his predecessor Donald Trump, who praised authoritarian leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Korea’s Kim Jong Un. North, they say that cannot be seen as an achievement.
“That’s not the right criteria,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of research for the Middle East Democracy Project, an advocacy group.
The real test was how willing Biden was to get involved in rights issues, Hawthorne said. “That’s what it means to focus this issue on your foreign policy. I don’t see any evidence of that.”
Defending the administration’s record, a senior State Department official said diplomats have frequently raised human rights concerns with foreign leaders, even in difficult conversations with adversaries such as China and Russia.
In some cases, the official told Reuters, raising human rights concerns in private could be a more effective approach and did not constitute the United States “pulling the punches.”
“In some contexts, it is not useful to publicly criticize governments that are doing something wrong there, but to raise things privately,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak about US policy.
Sometimes the subject can be too thorny to raise even in private. Sources said that at a high-level meeting in June with Erdogan, Biden did not discuss concerns about Turkey’s human rights record and instead focused on issues such as the future of Kabul airport, a priority when troops led by the United States withdrew from Afghanistan.
The two NATO allies are already at odds on issues including Ankara’s purchase of Russian air defense weapons, and US officials said any debate over Turkey’s treatment of dissidents and the press could have added tension.
Turkish officials took it as a sign that Washington would not push hard on human rights, sources said, despite repeated public criticism from the Biden administration of Ankara’s treatment of opposition groups and its official recognition of that the murders of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire were genocide. .
Rights advocates and some US officials were dismayed at the missed opportunity to take a stand.
“With undemocratic rulers, nothing is more powerful than hearing it from the president himself,” said Annie Boyajian, director of advocacy for Freedom House.
‘It’s not serious’
The first test of Biden’s commitment to democracy abroad came just days after he took office, when the Myanmar military seized power and locked up elected politicians.
Biden responded with sanctions against board members, but stopped short of targeting offshore gas projects that account for about half of Myanmar’s foreign currency revenue.
The administration was still weighing whether to impose sanctions on gas projects, the senior US official said, but added that much of Myanmar’s population, as well as neighboring Thailand, relied on gas.
A forthcoming test is whether Secretary of State Antony Blinken continues his predecessors’ policy of overriding a Congressional check on military aid to Egypt, granting an exception to release around $ 300 million for the Sisi government on the grounds of that it would be in the national security of the United States to interest. A decision is expected by the end of September.
More than a dozen human rights groups told Blinken in a letter in April that if he refused to release the funds “the United States will send a clear message that it takes seriously its commitment to support human rights abroad.” .
Sisi, who toppled the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, has overseen a crackdown on dissent that has hardened in recent years. He denies that there are political prisoners in Egypt, saying that stability and security are paramount.
US officials say Washington is reviewing its relations with governments in the Middle East, including Sisi’s.
“We have voiced our concerns both publicly and privately about the many, many human rights abuses in Egypt and we will continue to do so,” the official said.
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