Barack Obama criticised for falling short on human rights

President has set different tone to Bush, but failed to end abuses, says Human Rights Watch

Chris McGreal in Washington guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 January 2010 –
Barack Obama was criticised by Human Rights Watch for continuing some of the abuses of George Bush’s war on terror. Photograph: Brian Kersey/Getty Images.

America’s leading human rights organisation has said that Barack Obama is falling far short of his rhetoric by continuing some of the abuses of George Bush’s war on terror and by shielding foreign allies responsible for an assault on human rights activists not seen since the end of the cold war.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch praised Obama for setting a different tone to President Bush, and for ending some of the practices of the previous administration including torture and abduction to secret CIA prisons. But its director, Kenneth Roth, told the Guardian that Obama had failed to end other abuses, such as holding suspected terrorists indefinitely without trial and retaining military commissions.

Roth also criticised Obama for undermining human rights by failing to challenge key allies, such as Pakistan and Egypt, who are at the forefront of a renewed crackdown on activists, and for protecting Israel from accountability for war crimes in Gaza.

Human rights activists were under renewed siege in many parts of the world, he said.

“As human rights groups have put more and more pressure on governments, there’s been an increase in counterattacks of growing sophistication. The thing we’ve noticed is an increase in the deniable repression, the repression that has a facade of bureaucratic legality about it. Using the pretext of criminal prosecutions which are really trumped up charges,” Roth said. “You can really see that in a place like Pakistan where there is a human rights movement but they are fighting for their lives. You see a lot of countries using criminal libel, including Russia.”

Roth said that Moscow led the way in using laws and regulations to curb activists and other states had followed its example.

“Ethiopia is the big new entrant in the field this year with a new law that prohibits any organisation that receives more than 10% of its money from abroad from engaging in any human rights work. Ethiopia has effectively shut down the human rights community. In Rwanda there is a small human rights community that has been largely silenced. These are US allies,” he said.

The Human Rights Watch director said that the Obama administration was continuing a longstanding US practice of selectively challenging foreign governments over human rights.

“He has been a huge improvement at the rhetorical level. The issue has been translating that shining rhetoric into policy practice. If you look for example in Accra … he said that Africa doesn’t need strong leaders, it needs strong institutions, which is a great line,” he said. “But then what have they done about that?

“They’ve defended themselves by saying they’re trying to build up goodwill for use on human rights in the future but it is not credible.”

African leaders have challenged the international criminal court, accusing it of focusing disproportionately on Africa, particularly with its indictment of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, while ignoring alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roth dismisses the assertion as self-serving.

“You could have imagined African leaders saying: Isn’t it great that finally an international institution is taking seriously the plight of African victims? But that’s not the way they look at it. Instead they’ve identified with African leaders who have been repressing everybody. They treat themselves as a club of dictators who look after their own.”

But Roth added that the court’s position was undermined by US policy, particularly its protection of Israel.

“The US wouldn’t even put pressure on Israel to pursue serious domestic investigations of its war crimes in Gaza. People see that double standard and they say if the west is going to protect its own why can’t we do the same?” he said.

“If Israel was not going to allow an independent domestic investigation, it warranted international scrutiny and the US wouldn’t even allow the first step in the process to be taken. That infuriated people because they did see Washington protecting its own. The Gaddafis of the world had a stronger argument: if this is what the west is going to do, why shouldn’t we protect Bashir?”

Roth said Obama should be given credit for shutting down secret CIA detention facilities and barring the agency from torturing captives.

“Where he’s still falling short is refusing to investigate and prosecute the people who ordered torture, the people who provided the civil and legal justifications for it. It creates a climate of impunity.”

Human Rights Watch has also taken Obama to task about the continued use of military trials and the prospect of about 50 Guantánamo inmates being held indefinitely without charge.

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