WASHINGTON – Two leading international human rights groups gave U.S. President Barack Obama mixed reviews on his human rights record on Wednesday, a day before he is slated to accept the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged Obama to use his acceptance speech on Thursday to renew U.S. leadership on human rights after its position was undermined by abuses committed during the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
In awarding Obama the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee said in October the president had made extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation and that it hoped this would strengthen democracy and human rights.
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Obama has adopted a pragmatic style of foreign policy, winning praise for showing a willingness to talk to states such as Iran and North Korea, which his predecessor George W. Bush once dubbed part of an "axis of evil" and sought to isolate.
But Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said this pragmatism had sometimes come at the expense of speaking out about human rights in countries like China, Washington's biggest creditor and a major player in efforts to tackle the financial crisis.
"He has created a false choice between having to speak out forcefully on human rights or being pragmatic and getting results on other issues," Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox told Reuters in an interview.
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch give Obama high marks for acting swiftly to announce the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, an end to the CIA's secret detention program, adopting a multilateral approach to diplomacy, and reaching out to the Muslim world.
But they fault him for failing to do enough to address specific human rights cases.
"He has spoken out on some cases, like (Nobel peace laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi, but he has not raised forcefully enough issues of human rights in China, for example, where it would have demonstrated real commitment on our part not to let other needs prevent us from speaking out very forcefully," Cox said.
Human Rights Watch Associate Director Carroll Bogert said the administration appeared to have made the calculation that the United States would be a stronger player in the international arena if it downplayed human rights.
"I think the calculation is there that raising human rights will weaken the U.S. position. That's a miscalculation. The quiet approach makes him (Obama) look weak," Bogert said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows in February after saying the Obama administration would press China on human rights but this would not "interfere" with their work on the global financial crisis and climate change.
Obama himself was widely criticized at home and abroad after he avoided directly raising specific criticism and cases concerning China during his trip there last month.
In an interview with Reuters before the China trip, Obama strongly rejected criticism that he was backsliding on human rights and said his public statements had consistently espoused the values of freedom of speech, the press and religion.
Amnesty's Cox said Obama should use his Nobel speech to "say the United States after many, many decades, has failed to provide that kind of leadership (on human rights), and now wants once again to provide that leadership.
Human Rights Watch's Bogert said Obama should emphasize that his "policy of dialogue with unsavory regimes will not weaken America's voice for human rights."
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