Obama's human-rights lacuna in struggle against ‘extremism’

The US president went on the front foot against fundamentalist violence in the Middle East at a summit in Washington. But he was hobbled by his failure to place human rights in the region front and centre.

Arash Falasiri
25 February 2015

Limited appeal? Obama's pitch would have been stronger if human rights had been a focus. Demotix Live News. All rights reserved.

Barack Obama’s call last week for a global effort to combat “violent extremism” appeared to signal a shift in US foreign policy towards the Middle East. As many experts have suggested, the president sought to distance himself from the discourse of his predecessor, George W. Bush, avoiding terms like ‘Islamic terrorism’ in speaking out against al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). But merely altering the official rhetoric, so that the US is no longer “at war with Islam”, addresses neither the phenomenon of non-state violence nor its determinants.

Obama did urge countries to “break the cycles of conflict” and address its root causes. But only if the US shows it is in earnest about human rights in addressing authoritarian governments in the region, as well as political and economic concerns, will his new paradigm of global security take shape.


Obama is conventionally criticised from the right, domestically and internationally, for refusing to adopt an ‘iron fist’ policy or to label the IS threat as radical Islam. But it is his silence on many rights infringements in recent months which many human-rights activists have questioned.

In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last autumn, he urged governments and communities across the Muslim world to provide more opportunities for young people who might be attracted to violent organisations. He sustained this line of argument at last week’s summit and went on to insist that “when people are oppressed and human rights are denied and when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism”.

Indeed, recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate human rights are sharply deteriorating all over the Middle East.

Yet what is striking is the passive and negligent policy of the White House towards human-rights issues among its regional allies. Many of these regimes are considered the most oppressive by international human-rights agencies and the UN. While, in other words, Obama implicitly rejected Bush’s legacy and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate”, he failed to step out on the path of pursuing human rights in the administration’s dialogues with the governments in the region.

One barrier is that among not only western politicians but also Middle Eastern rulers there remains profound disagreement as to whether the best way to counter fundamentalist violence is indeed through human rights and civil society or rather by military action. If he is to map out his policy shift from Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and attain a global security, Obama must prioritise human rights in what will be a long and profound discussion with Middle Eastern governments.

Another blurring of the issues was the president’s assertion that Muslim clerics and their governments had a “responsibility” to push back on “twisted interpretations of Islam”—as if all religions did not contain the potential for fundamentalism and as if violence in its name should be treated as other than crimes against the rule of law. Among the hundreds of foreign officials so addressed in the conference were those from countries with what was thus only passingly referred to as a “spotty record” on human rights and democracy—like Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt. 


Obama urged religious, civic and political leaders to stop feeding the notion that the US was the “cause of every ill in the Middle East”. But it cannot dispel this association while it fails to press authoritarian governments in the region to tolerate political opponents and provide basic rights for members of minorities.

Indeed, recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International indicate human rights are sharply deteriorating all over the Middle East. The HRW World Report 2015 highlights, for instance, how Saudi authorities have sentenced several leading human-rights activists and other reform advocates to long jail terms for their peaceful activism, while some minority leaders have been tortured while others are on death row. In Egypt, meanwhile, the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, recently announced that the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood would be “long-lasting” and two weeks ago a court sentenced 183 supporters of the outlawed brotherhood to death—in a process which Amnesty said took less than an hour. In January  in Iran at least 70 executions were reported and at least 11 activists and seven journalists arrested. And in general the climate facing human-rights activists and moderate political opponents among US allies in the region, such as Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, has worsened in the past few months.    

In short, while the main disagreement among some US political figures, like the Republican senators Ted Cruz and Lindsay Graham—and even a few Democrats, such as Tulsi Gabbard—is with Obama’s “careful language” and his refusal to accept that terrorist groups “somehow represent Islam”, urging world leaders and governments in the region to confront the ideologies of groups like IS and al-Qaeda demands that the White House take human rights seriously. Only if Obama recognises the connection between human-rights violators and the ideologies of non-state violent groups can a genuine policy shift be effected.

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