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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept/Oct 2010, Pages 54-55

Human Rights

Carnegie Endowment Hosts Panel On Human Rights in the Arab World

(L-r) Amal Basha, Michael Posner, Michele Dunne, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Bahey El Din Hassan. (Staff photo Jacoub Sleibi)

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Heinrich Boll Foundation co-sponsored a June 30 panel discussion entitled "Human Rights in the Arab World: An Administration Perspective," at the Carnegie Center in Washington, DC.

The panel, moderated by Carnegie Endowment senior associate Michele Dunne, examined the U.S. policy toward human rights in the region, as well as the degree to which Arabs perceive U.S. strategies as successful.

Panel members included Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Tamara Cofman Wittes; Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; and Amal Basha, chairperson for Sisters' Arab Forum for Human Rights.

Introducing the panelists, Dunne noted that they represented a powerful mix of "both the functional and bureaucratic arms of the State Department and regional representatives." She summarized the question to be addressed as, "Is the U.S. government engaging in a fruitful way in Arab civil society?"

Posner opened the discussion by describing the Obama administration's strategy for promoting human rights around the world. The plan has three major components, he said: principle engagement, single universal standard, and commitment to help societies change from within. According to Posner, former executive director, then president, of Human Rights First, the plan is designed to take, "a 365-days-a-year approach to democracy and human rights."

"We do not accept the notion that there is a difference between pursuing democracy and pursuing human rights," stated Wittes, previously with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "Our role is to empower and bolster civil society groups in these countries." Wittes described U.S. efforts in Yemen and Egypt, where Washington is supplying aid in the form of dollars and manpower to help advocacy groups and government agencies. "The most powerful shaping force in the Arab world is demographics," she said. "It is our job to help the next generation have access to the tools to help them succeed."

The two Arab panelists, however, both believed that the U.S. is not doing enough in the region. Hassan and Basha argued that it is the region's governments, not their citizens, that are being empowered by U.S. policy. "In the past year, the region has experienced increased intensification of oppression by governments," Hassan noted. "The USA made three negative decisions: to unconditionally support the corrupt Yemeni regime, to do nothing about the rigged election in the Sudan, and [to allow] the Egyptian government to continue its poor human rights policies."

Hassan and Basha felt that Obama has not lived up to the lofty goals he set during his June 2009 speech in Cairo. "It all sounded nice," acknowledged Basha, "but look at the reality."

The discussion concluded with a question-and-answer session following a brief comment by Dunne. "Despite the U.S. government's strategy and belief that it is making progress," he observed, "it seems that a gap exists between what the U.S. government is doing and how it is perceived by the Arab world."

George Wilson

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