Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama has the Nobel Peace Prize, but action on human rights is long overdue

It is a sad bit of irony that International Human Rights Day and President Obama’s formal acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize coincide today. Much has been written about the strange choice of the Nobel Committee and good suggestions made on how the President could redeem his premature award. My favorite suggestions were that he ...

575686_091220_ObamaOslo32.jpg
575686_091220_ObamaOslo32.jpg
Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland (L) hands the diploma and medal to Nobel Peace Prize laureate, US President Barack Obama during the Nobel Peace prize award ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo on December 10, 2009. The president faces a tricky task of reconciling the revered honor with his decision just last week to send 30,000 troops to escalate the war in Afghanistan, a move which tripled the US force there since he took office. AFP PHOTO / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

It is a sad bit of irony that International Human Rights Day and President Obama's formal acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize coincide today.

Much has been written about the strange choice of the Nobel Committee and good suggestions made on how the President could redeem his premature award. My favorite suggestions were that he accept it on behalf of American men and women in the military who have fought for freedom or donate his medal to Shirin Ebadi (her Nobel medal was recently stolen by regime thugs) and invite her to the White House for the handover. Regardless of how he handles the acceptance speech, the president already has said that the award should serve as a "call to action." Action from Obama on human rights globally is long overdue.

It is a sad bit of irony that International Human Rights Day and President Obama’s formal acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize coincide today.

Much has been written about the strange choice of the Nobel Committee and good suggestions made on how the President could redeem his premature award. My favorite suggestions were that he accept it on behalf of American men and women in the military who have fought for freedom or donate his medal to Shirin Ebadi (her Nobel medal was recently stolen by regime thugs) and invite her to the White House for the handover. Regardless of how he handles the acceptance speech, the president already has said that the award should serve as a “call to action.” Action from Obama on human rights globally is long overdue.

Obama is increasingly criticized in the United States and other regions for his persistent refusal to promote universal human rights and democratic values or speak out in support of those around the world risking their lives to defend them. It’s time to change course. After an imperfect but bold decision on the use of U.S. hard power in Afghanistan, the president now needs to do the same with soft power issues.

Obama’s foreign policy instincts, especially on these issues, are not great and he needs to start listening to those within his own administration who understand the importance of promoting human rights and democratic values globally. There is no doubt that bitter battles were waged within the State Department and across the interagency over whether or not the president should meet his fellow Nobel Laureate the Dalai Lama and over what the words he should, or should not, use when speaking about the Iranian opposition (including fellow Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi). But at the end of the day, it is the president who sets the tone of U.S. foreign policy and decides who wins those internal battles. And so far, the administration’s internal human rights defenders appear to be losing most of them. They must be frustrated.

Obama has prioritized talking with our enemies which can make sense if done right. But if we compromise on universal principles like human rights from the outset we already have lost. And talking for talking’s sake leads nowhere. But if the United States holds fast to principles in the midst of negotiations, talking may bear fruit. Take Burma as an example. I remain wary of the dialogue the United States has opened with the generals who rule Burma because I’ve seen the pattern before with U.N. envoys coming and going with no results from “dialogue.” Talk is not progress unless the generals are speaking to Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, other democracy movement leaders and the ethnic nationalities directly about the future of their country. But I would be delighted if the United States discussions succeeded in facilitating change and led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, perhaps they will. The State Department has thus far kept to longstanding, principled demands for progress on human rights, including the release of political prisoners, before lifting sanctions on the regime. Also positive was ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues Melanne Verveer’s recent meeting with Burmese women activists to discuss sexual violence by the Burmese military. I met with some of these same women, nearly 8 years ago, and the widespread rape continues unabated. As I have articulated before, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers and other crimes against humanity against ethnic minority civilians have long provided justification for U.N. Security Council action on Burma. Sadly, the Obama administration has dropped the U.S. effort at the Security Council begun under President Bush and Ambassador Verveer has little to offer the women she met. Thus we see the limits of engagement on these issues without support from the top.     

President Obama campaigned on change and has had nearly a year of trying to be “Anything But Bush.” But it is time to move on and become the leader that Americans — and human rights activists around the world — expect. We want a leader who stands for universal principles in line with our own — even when it is difficult to do so — and builds alliances with nations or people within nations who share our commitment to human rights, democracy and peace — not with tyrants who don’t. The president cannot rely on his personality to win over dictators and convince them to change, but his popularity could benefit human rights defenders around the world if he chose to stand with them. The current situation of downtrodden dissidents and frustrated friends is certainly not the best that U.S. leadership has to offer, but principled choices leading to real action on human rights is change I could believe in.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.