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U.S. Policy and Human Rights

Aired October 14, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, U.S. foreign policy and human rights. President Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the U.S. has always been the beacon for human rights around the world. Is that softening now? Is realpolitik going to take a front seat?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Moscow, where today she spoke out against human rights abuses and declared that attacks on journalists and activists are a great concern.

But yesterday, she didn't directly mention human rights -- not once -- during a news conference with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, so many in the human rights community are wondering whether U.S. rhetoric will be matched by action. They point out that Clinton seemed to be pushing human rights to one side in favor of a more pragmatic policy of engagement with China on her first overseas trip as secretary of state.

And none other than the world's long-term champion of human rights, the former Czech president Vaclav Havel, has just criticized President Obama for breaking with U.S. presidential tradition and failing to meet yet with the Dalai Lama in Washington. We'll discuss all of that this half-hour.

But first, Hillary Clinton's trip to Moscow and CNN's Matthew Chance. He's reporting on Russia's failure to find -- let alone prosecute -- the murderers of those activists and journalists.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Anna Politkovskaya was known around the world as a journalist holding Moscow accountable for alleged abuses against civilians in Chechnya until she was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building, a murder still unsolved three years later.

Her daughter, Vera, says those close to her feel betrayed by the official investigation.

"Our family is losing hope," she told the news conference, "that people involved in the crime will ever be found and convicted."

Human rights group say Russia has an appalling record of failing to investigate these kinds of crimes. Human Rights Watch says that, in 115 cases, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was "responsible for extrajudicial executions, torture, and enforced disappearances" and for failing to properly investigate these crimes.

In 33 cases researched by Human Rights Watch, Russia has still not brought a single perpetrator to justice. The rights group says that failure fuels ongoing abuses.

It seems almost every few months in Russia a prominent activist, lawyer or journalist is killed for their work. In January, Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who worked with Politkovskaya, was shot dead in Moscow. Journalist Anastasia Baburova was gunned down at his side.

In July, rights worker Natalya Estemirova was abducted and killed. She was one of the few activists brave enough to actually live in Chechnya, holding authorities to account for the alleged widespread abuses there. There have been other killings since.

The head of the group Estemirova worked for, Memorial, accuses the Kremlin- backed Chechen leadership of ordering her killing. Russia's aggressive tactics, he says, are counterproductive.

OLEG ORLOV, MEMORIAL (through translator): Burning of the homes is the new method being applied. The government comes to the homes of militants or people who are even suspected and just burned them down. Instead of showing people that, within the framework of the laws, the government can defend them, trust in the government is undermined.

CHANCE: And many rights workers believe that approach is fueling a vicious circle, driving civilians into the arms of radical groups.

(on-screen): The Kremlin has refused to comment on the specific allegations made by Human Rights Watch and by Memorial. Though in recent comments publicly, the country's president, Dmitry Medvedev, described the human rights situation here as "far from perfect." Rights, he said, should be protected by the legal process.

Still, many critics have very little faith that this country's leadership is really ready to change.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.


AMANPOUR: And joining us now, Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch in Washington.

Welcome, both of you, to the program.

If I can start with you, Sarah, this business of human rights and whether the Russian authorities are really being pressed to do all they can, are they?

SARAH MENDELSON, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I don't think they are being pressed to do all they can. I think it's very imperative at this moment to shift the burden from the very brave human rights activists on the ground and the journalists who were recording abuses to the policymakers both in the Kremlin, but also in the United States and in the European Union.

If the U.S. and the EU together have one voice on this, I think it will have more of an impact in encouraging President Medvedev to address these issues.

AMANPOUR: Now, one of the things you've written is that, in fact, western policymakers don't seem to have any idea how to do this, and particularly because most of it springs from the problem and the violence in the north caucuses, particularly in Chechnya.

MENDELSON: That's right. There's been a tremendous spike in the summer of 2009 in violence in the north caucuses. But for over 10 years, it's been an issue that's really dogged administrations in the United States.

And I think, you know, we're so focused on a conversation about counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. What you're seeing in the north caucuses, in many ways, is bad coin (ph). It's bad counterinsurgency. And for that reason, it's a security issue for Europe and for the United States, as well as, obviously, for Russia.

AMANPOUR: I want to talk about the civil society meeting that went in on Moscow that Hillary Clinton went to. I believe both Tom and you were involved in a civil society group over the summer.

MENDELSON: That's right.

AMANPOUR: And we've got this Wordle thing which makes a word cloud of words that are used in various speeches. And so the one that is representative of what happened in Moscow, it does mention things like "accountable," "governance," "human" and "rights." There were maybe about three mentions, but not a huge number.

You have been in touch with your colleagues out there. Are you pleased with the tone that Secretary Clinton took?

MENDELSON: Well, Secretary Clinton really had three opportunities to engage human rights and civil society. One was a meeting at Spaso House, the ambassador's residence. One was on a progressive radio station. And one was to students at Moscow State University.

In every case, she talked about the impunity, the culture of impunity that these journalists and human rights activists are under siege. I think that's very important. What we really want to see, I think, eventually is a whole package of ways in which the Obama administration is making this a critical component of how they engage Russia and Russians.

And I think there's a role for my colleague Tom and I to play in that, and others as well.

AMANPOUR: So, Tom, what is -- Tom Malinowski in Washington of Human Rights Watch -- what is the advice to the Obama administration, a key thing to the very committed rhetoric that certainly was floated during the campaign for the presidency, the human rights rhetoric?

TOM MALINOWSKI, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Well, the president has continued that rhetoric, actually, in the speeches that he's given around the world -- in Egypt, in Moscow, when he was there over the summer, in Ghana. And most recently, speaking to the U.N. General Assembly.

But there's sometimes a tension between the extraordinarily powerful convictions that he has expressed, and the equally strong desire and understandable desire of the administration to rebuild America's diplomatic relationships around the world that were frayed during the Bush administration. And I think...

AMANPOUR: So, building those diplomatic relationships are obviously something that everybody can agree with is vitally important. But let's take a few issues here, where perhaps there's a collision between that and some of the human rights promises.

Let's take Burma, the idea that the administration wants to engage with Burma. The military junta still has Aung San Suu Kyi in prison.

Let's take China, where we already mentioned that Secretary Clinton seemed to push human rights aside in favor of the much more pragmatic engagement on the economy, nuclear proliferation, climate change. Let's even take Sudan, which is run now by a president who's the only sitting head of state indicted by the war crimes tribunal.

What is the administration getting in return? I mean, this seems to be a pattern. Why in these countries is engagement being touted without a return.

MALINOWSKI: Yes. Burma is one, I think, they've gotten the balance right. You know, all engagement really means is that you talk to governments, and that shouldn't be controversial. They've maintained sanctions on Burma. They've maintained the paramount goal of freeing political prisoners and moving towards democracy.

China, I think, is a different matter. And that's where we've seen the tension play out in the most acute way, with several signals that have been sent suggesting that the administration is putting human rights issues to one side. And most recently, the, I think, symbolic mistake of the president declining to meet the Dalai Lama before his own visit to China later next month.

I think if you were to ask President Obama about this, he'd say, you know, what matters is it's not the symbolic events and the statements that I make. It's -- it's the substance of what I can achieve on the issue of Tibet, for example. But I think symbolism matters tremendously, and I think that symbolism sent a message to the Chinese government that perhaps this isn't as high a priority for the United States as it has been in the past.

AMANPOUR: You're nodding your head, Sarah. Symbolism matters?

MENDELSON: Symbolism does matter. I mean, if it were up to me, I would have preferred Secretary Clinton to meet the human rights activists on their turf, that is, to go to Memorial or maybe the Sakharov Museum in Moscow. But I think it's very important to recognize, it is in the U.S. national security interest and the Obama administration's interest to have these countries, whether it's China or Russia, be ruled by law and be compliant and be reliable partners.

And what you see happening for sure in Russia is this culture of impunity - - really, it calls into question our ability to do things together that are in our national security interest.

AMANPOUR: So we're going to play something that President Medvedev said about Natalya's murder just in the summer. Listen.


DMITRY MEDVEDEV, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): The murder of our human rights activist, Estemirova, is, of course, a very sad event. For me, one thing is absolutely clear: Her murder is linked to her professional activities.


AMANPOUR: He's also stepped out and said that these things need to be -- need to be addressed. Is this a chance? Is anybody actually jumping on this? And is this a real chance to get the authorities to do something about it or not?

MENDELSON: It is a chance, but the investigation needs to stay at the level of the prosecutor general. It needs to never drop down to the regional level. And what he did after that statement was to impugn the integrity of people who suggested there might have been regional authorities involved. There needs to be an absolutely open investigation into all possibilities.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'm going to show you, when I was in Moscow and we were also investigating the human rights, the murders of a lot of journalists and activists, we went to the Glasnost Institute and we spoke to the director there. And he walked me along a wall -- that's the memorial for - - at the funeral -- but he walked me along a wall showing me, one by one, so many photos of journalists and other activists who've been killed, more than 200. And I asked him, "How many have been brought to account?" He said maybe five that had even been investigated.

MENDELSON: And this is a real hook which I think President Dmitry Medvedev could be convinced is important. He is very much about anti-corruption, at least rhetorically. You can't, in the modern era, combat corruption if you don't have independent investigative journalists doing their jobs.

AMANPOUR: Can I turn to you, Tom, and ask you about Sudan, which I briefly mentioned? Look, Sudan -- the president, al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, and yet President Obama's envoy has been talking about cookies and gold stars.

Let me just quote what he was quoted as saying: "We've got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries, they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talks, and engagement." I mean, what is that?

MALINOWSKI: It's a really dumb thing to say. I mean, to be fair to the administration here, they're undergoing a Sudan policy review, and they haven't announced their policy. I hope...

AMANPOUR: What do you think the policy will be?

MALINOWSKI: I hope and pray it's not...

AMANPOUR: And what kind of signal does that kind of -- of rhetoric from an envoy give?

MALINOWSKI: It's very unfortunate. First of all, he's wrong. Governments like this are not children, and they don't react to cookies and gold stars. They act on their interests.

And -- and historically, as -- as you know from experience from Bosnia to, you know, all the places where we have successfully defeated this kind of violence, governments respond to pressure.

And, you know, so it sends a signal that he sort of doesn't get that. It also is something that I think the government in Sudan would have been profoundly offended by. You know, no one wants to be called a bunch of children. So he offended everybody by that statement, and I hope that the -- the administration, when they announce their review, is -- the policy is more mature and more grounded in realism than the envoy has suggested it might be.

AMANPOUR: What do you think it will be, incentives without -- without pressure?

MALINOWSKI: Well, incentives without pressure don't work...


MALINOWSKI: ... because, of course, the -- the -- the ultimate incentive, the incentive that matters, is that pressure will be relieved. And for that incentive to be strong, the pressure has to be strong. That's the logic of that equation.

So, absolutely, we should be talking to the Sudanese, we should be offering incentives, but they're not going to take it seriously unless the sanctions and the diplomatic pressure are particularly strong.

AMANPOUR: You both worked on Guantanamo Bay. You both had a lot to do with -- with -- with the solution or trying to find a solution to all of this. You've spoken about how President Obama has tried to regain America's moral standing.

And yet Guantanamo Bay is not closed, and there's no date for it to be closed, and certain aspects of it continue. What is going to happen there?

MENDELSON: Well, we -- Tom and I think both agree, as everybody does who's looked at this closely, it's an extremely difficult issue. And when we advance the idea of a 12-month calendar, we meant 12 months. We meant 12 working months.

It was wonderful that President Obama signed the executive order on January 22nd, but then the idea was that they needed to focus all attention on that and get good progress. I mean, it wasn't until May when we had Ambassador Daniel Fried, the diplomat who was going to go out and negotiate the release and transfer of various detainees who could be released.

So, they got a big bang, good approach in the beginning, and then it was a slow start. So, it's not terribly surprising that we find ourselves eight months in and we're all hungry for more.

AMANPOUR: Tom, we talked a little bit about realpolitik pragmatism. We've talked today, just now, about Russia and China. Obviously, those are countries that the Obama administration wants to bring in to help it with issues -- for instance, Iran.

And yet, are they getting bang for their buck?

MALINOWSKI: Well, not that much yet on Iran and a lot of other issues.

I would argue to them that you can get bang for your buck on the diplomatic issues where you need their support and still maintain a principled position on issues that the United States has cared about for a long time, and that there is a core national interest with respect to each of these countries in moving them towards greater respect for rule of law and accountability at home. We've got huge issues inside China, for example, on the environment. Well, good luck getting progress on environmental issues with China if regular people in China don't have the ability through free newspapers and other free institutions to press their government to clean up its environmental promise.

AMANPOUR: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you so much.

Sorry to interrupt you, Tom.

Thank you so much, Tom Malinowski and Sarah Mendelson.

We will continue this discussion.

And we'll have more on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's indictment on war crimes and what the Obama administration's special envoy is saying about it when we return.



SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Women gang-raped while gathering firewood is wrong. Silence, acquiescence, paralysis in the face of genocide is wrong.



AMANPOUR: That was Senator Barack Obama in 2006 when he was a candidate. So does pragmatism trump promises?

Joining us now from Brussels, the president of the International Crisis Group, Louise Arbour. She's a former U.N. human rights commissioner and a former war crimes prosecutor.

Welcome. Welcome, Mrs. Arbour, from Brussels there. Nice to see you.

You were the first prosecutor who indicted a sitting head of state. That was Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia back in 1999. And at the time, many people criticized you, saying, "Well, if you indict him now, we'll never be able to get -- we'll never be able to get peace, we'll never be able to move forward." And you had a pretty strong response there. What's different in the Darfur area?

LOUISE ARBOUR, FORMER WAR CRIMES PROSECUTOR: Well, first of all, we don't have a lot of precedents to look to, so it's -- it's very dangerous to draw analogies if they're not there. When I indicted President Milosevic, it was under a legal regime that's somewhat different from the International Criminal Court, under which President Bashir is being indicted.

In my opinion, I had to bring the indictment when I had the evidence. It turned out that Milosevic surrendered about eight days after he was indicted. I didn't know that at the time, but in my view, this was not a consideration I had to -- to -- to take into account.

I think it's the same way for the International Criminal Court. It has to play its hand. It has a mandate. It has to move forward. And then what's going to happen next, I think, is for a lot of other actors to look into'.

AMANPOUR: So what is the juxtaposition or the collision, now that you're head of the International Crisis Group and have to find solutions or at least try to have solutions to some of these intractable conflicts? What is the collision now between policy and the desire to get justice for the people, the desire to not let genocide stand, and, frankly, to hold a president accountable?

ARBOUR: Well, I think the process is unfolding. How it will all play out, I think, still remains to be seen. He is indicted by the International Criminal Court. He has made tremendous effort to try to derail that indictment by calling for a Security Council intervention to stop the process, in fact, by also trying to rally African states, trying to get them to repudiate the -- the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court.

So far, the indictment is still in place. The process has to unfold. And the African Union has taken, I think, some very important steps. President Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, has just presented a report, hasn't been made public yet, but his statements are tremendously encouraging.

He's not advocating for Africa to walk away from the entire justice agenda. Quite the opposite, his words to the press were very strong. Accountability has to take place. However, there's a preference for domestic courts to take precedence over the international court.

AMANPOUR: But in terms of policy...

ARBOUR: So if this could be...


AMANPOUR: In terms of policy, a lot of people around the world take their -- take their lead from the United States, particularly on the issue of human rights, and recently Anwar Ibrahim, the former vice president of -- of Malaysia, who himself is under threat, a leading democrat in -- in Asia, a leading proponent of human rights told the Washington Post that he's afraid that the Obama administration is softening on human rights.

And I ask you this not in a human rights capacity specifically, but how does this help, if the U.S. is perceived to be softening, how does this help in policy, in trying to get policy addressed around the world, important policies?

ARBOUR: Well, I'll tell you, I think if you have a policy of engagement, which I think is very much the one put forward by the Obama administration, you may give an impression that you're softening. It's very easy to look tough, right? You don't talk to anybody; you repudiate everything; you slam all the doors; and you accomplish nothing or very little. And we have a lot of precedence for that.

When you have a policy of reinforcing diplomatic initiatives, engagement, it may look -- look soft because you have to put on the table a multiplicity of issues, not just a single one. But on balance, I think there's more chance of achieving result on some of these competing sometimes, but all important initiatives than just by looking tough and achieving nothing.

AMANPOUR: OK, well, let me ask you this. Obviously, the United States is keeping, it says, its sanctions on Burma. You've just written at the ICG a paper on this. And yet, did it get anything -- and quite briefly -- did it get anything in return, any gesture for deciding to engage?

ARBOUR: I think so. It's going to be very slow.

You can't have 20 years of extremely adversarial, confrontational posturing, and then say, well, we're ready to talk and be friendly, and assume that the other side's going to roll over. It's just not going to work that way.

There have to be very slow processes, but I think Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been encouraging more engagement. She wants to have contact with the junta and with foreigners, and it's happening. These are small steps. They're certainly in the right direction.

AMANPOUR: Louise Arbour, thank you so much for joining us from Brussels.

And we asked the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, to join this discussion, but he didn't respond to our invitation. We hope he will on another occasion.

And next, human rights in Afghanistan, the story of one courageous MP there.


AMANPOUR: Now our "P.S.," our postscript.

Malalai Joya is speaking out against corruption by her fellow lawmakers in Afghanistan, and she's not mincing her words. She is an MP there, and she says her colleagues are no better than animals in a zoo. Her courage has made her many enemies, but she's determined to continue pushing for honest government and human rights, whatever the risk.

This conversation will continue on line. Chat with other viewers and continue this debate on

And that's it for now. Thank you for watching. We'll be back tomorrow with the next big story.

For all of us here, goodbye from New York.