During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was baffled by Rick Warren's question about when, in the candidate's view, a baby gets human rights. Obama's stammering response ended with his instantly-famous line that the question was "above my pay grade."
Obama seems to have embraced a similar approach to human rights abroad. From Iran's democracy protestors to Cuba's political prisoners and China's human rights advocates, the American president's "open-hand" foreign policy has been defined by conspicuous silence about human rights.
President Obama's reticence on human rights contrasts sharply with the rhetoric of a candidate who made human rights a focal point of his campaign. Nowhere has the gap between Obama's campaign talk and his administration's actions been greater than on Sudan.
It is difficult to find a country more ravaged by war than Sudan. The conflict in Darfur and the war between North and South have together left some 2.5 million people dead and millions of others displaced.
Senator Obama was one of the upper chamber's most vocal advocates of strong action against the Sudanese regime. As a presidential candidate, he endorsed tougher sanctions on the Sudanese government and implementation of a no fly zone. He promised to end the genocide in Darfur and preserve a fragile North-South peace.
At her confirmation hearing, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton said preserving the North South peace agreement would be a "top priority." Obama's chief Sudan advisor, Susan Rice (now ambassador to the United Nations), hinted at U.S. military action against Khartoum, and vowed to "go down in flames" advocating tough measures.
Joe Biden even said, "I would use American force now [in Darfur]."
But like so many of its promises, the Obama administration's tough talk about Sudan has not translated into tough policy. In fact, after years of blasting George W. Bush's Sudan policy, Obama is now being slammed for offering too much carrot and not enough stick to a government whose president is the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Obama's special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, says he wants to build rapport with Khartoum. He created controversy recently with his bizarre statement that he would win over Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with "cookies…gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement."
Clinton has similarly called for "a menu of incentives and disincentives, political and economic."
In August, Gration suggested to Congress that Sudan be taken off the U.S. terrorism list, thus laying the basis to lift heavy sanctions previously imposed on Khartoum. Gration has also created controversy by stating that the Darfur genocide is over and that the deaths still occurring there are merely the "remnants of genocide."
Unlike his predecessor, President Obama rarely talks publicly about Sudan. After Obama failed to mention Sudan in his SOTU address to Congress, Darfur activists released a statement …"We are very far from the unstinting resolve on Sudan that President Obama promised in the campaign."
China is complicit with genocide in Darfur through its investment of more than $9 billion in oil in exchange for arms, and in its refusal to back U.N. action against the Bashir regime.
But Obama hasn't talked to China about its unconscionable support for Bashir. Which recently led 44 members of Congress to send a letter to the president. It stated, in part, that Obama's "failure to exert sufficient public pressure on China regarding its relationship with Khartoum will send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States places other interests ahead of achieving peace in Sudan."
The president's neglect of Sudan has caused much disappointment among human rights groups. A recent Save Darfur email stated, "As [Obama] took office, he promised high-level leadership to bring peace to Darfur and all of Sudan. Unfortunately, Obama's strong words in the campaign have yet to be accompanied by the kind of decisive leadership we expected from the new president."
Prominent Darfur advocate John Prendegast wrote in October, "Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden talked tough when they were presidential candidates, but this administration's day to day diplomacy on Sudan has been troubling." He continued, "For the past seven months, U.S. diplomacy toward Sudan has veered dangerously in the direction of appeasing Sudan's ruling National Congress Party."
You know things are bad when a former U.N. employee scolds you for inaction. In December the world body criticized the administration for its failure to enforce an arms embargo, stating, "In contrast to the leadership of 2004 and 2005, the United States appears to have now joined the group of influential states who sit by quietly and do nothing to ensure that sanctions protect Darfurians."
Obama's neglect risks wasting what is a critical year for Sudan. Its first multi-party elections are planned for April, and a referendum on southern independence from the north is set for next January. There have already been allegations of electoral interference by the Bashir regime, and if the elections are not free, there is a good chance Southern Sudanese may give up and go back to war.
Obama recently told reporters that the U.S. would increase pressure on Sudan if the government does not respond to more engagement. But Khartoum has never responded to anything but credible threats (and sometimes not even then).
And Bashir and his cronies clearly do not see Obama as a credible threat. After Obama's election, Sudan's ambassador to the U.N. dismissed his promises of a tough Sudan policy as "only election slogans." Sudan advocates are slowly coming to the same conclusion.
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