Human Rights Watch slammed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders for relying on "quiet diplomacy" to gently nudge despotic governments to stop brutalizing their people.
The rights group’s special report, titled "A Facade of Action: The Misuse of Dialogue and Cooperation with Rights Abusers," acknowledges that Ban has made strong public statements on the poor human rights records of relatively weak countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but charges that he has pulled his punches on some of the world’s most abusive governments and let major powers like China entirely off the hook.
"He has placed undue faith in his professed ability to convince by private persuasion the likes of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, Burmese military leader Than Shwe, and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa," Kenneth Roth, the executive director, said in an introduction to the report. "Worse, far from condemning repression, Ban sometimes went out of his way to portray oppressive governments in a positive light."
Roth cited Ban’s handling of Burma during the run-up to elections last year. "In the days before Burma’s sham elections in November, Ban contended that it was ‘not too late’ to ‘make this election more inclusive and participatory’ by releasing political detainees — an unlikely eventuality that, even if realized, would not have leveled the severely uneven electoral playing field."
Roth also chastised Ban for failing to raise concerns about human rights violations in China during a meeting with President Hu Jintao and only addressing the issue in closed-door talks with less-senior officials. The omission, he said, "left the impression that, for the Secretary General, human rights were at best a second-tier priority. In commenting on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese human rights activist, Ban never congratulated Liu or called for his release from prison but instead praised Beijing" for "’join[ing] the international mainstream in its adherence to recognized human rights instruments and practices.’"
In response, Ban’s spokesman Farhan Haq told Turtle Bay that "the secretary-general’s record to push for human rights speaks for itself. He has spoken up to defend the human rights of people around the world and has delivered statements on human rights in many countries, including Myanmar [also known as Burma] and China in the past or Cote d’Ivoire and Sudan today. Whether by quiet diplomacy or by speaking out, he has personally and insistently sought to protect and defend basic rights, and he will continue to do so."
Responding to the report’s findings in a press conference, Haq said that Ban "values the role" of Human Rights Watch and other rights advocates. But he said Ban’s view is that "diplomacy and public pressure are not mutually exclusive.… The secretary-general has applied public pressure when he has considered it the most likely means to achieve results." Haq said Ban has achieved such results through the use of quiet diplomacy, citing Ban’s role in freeing a jailed gay couple in Malawi. "On Sri Lanka, the secretary-general appointed an advisory panel which will present its report to the SG soon," Haq said. "It would not be proper to prejudge the value of its work in promoting accountability and, more importantly, preventing human rights violations in Sri Lanka and other countries in the future."
The report looks beyond the U.N., citing ASEAN’s "tepid response to Burmese repression"; India’s "pliant posture toward Burma and Sri Lanka"; the European Union’s "obsequious approach to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan"; the "soft Western reaction to certain favored repressive African leaders such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia"; and the "weak United States policy toward Saudi Arabia."
"The EU seems to have become particularly infatuated with the idea of dialogue and cooperation, with the EU’s first high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, repeatedly expressing a preference for ‘quiet diplomacy’ regardless of the circumstances," Roth wrote. "Leading democracies of the global South, such as South Africa, India, and Brazil, have promoted quiet demarches as a preferred response to repression. The famed eloquence of US President Barack Obama has sometimes eluded him when it comes to defending human rights, especially in bilateral contexts with, for example China, India, and Indonesia."
The report was written before Hu’s visit this month to Washington, where Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton did more forcefully raise concerns about China’s human rights record. The report also did not address Ban’s handling of the electoral crisis in Ivory Coast, where Human Rights Watch has praised his repeated public complaints about rights abuses by followers of Ivory Coast’s defeated former president, Laurent Gbagbo, who is seeking to cling to power.
The report’s release comes just days after Ban delivered a statement at a Holocaust commemoration underscoring the U.N.’s obligation to speak out against atrocities. "It is a day to speak out, to speak out against those who would deny the Holocaust, who would diminish it or explain it away," Ban said at the Manhattan Park East Synagogue. "Let us also remember: The United Nations was created, in part, to prevent such a thing from ever happening again."
"As United Nations secretary-general, I never forget this fundamental mission: to stand, to speak out, for human rights and human decency," Ban said.
In his response to Ban’s speech, Roth send out this comment on Twitter suggesting that Ban’s commitment doesn’t extend to abuses by the permanent five members of the Security Council: "Ban says UN has duty to speak out on human rights," Roth tweeted. "Great! But not when the offender is a P5 member of [the] Security Council."
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