06 May 2011
By Jeff Baron
Washington — U.S. diplomats overseeing human rights and Middle East policy say their work in supporting the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world is pragmatic as well as principled.
“When people talk about a conflict between our democratic values and our desire for stability, that’s a false dichotomy,” Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee May 5. “The United States has a profound interest in regional stability. … And we believe the respect for human rights and principles of accountability are actually key components in long-term stability.”
Posner, who oversees the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Tamara Wittes, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, offered testimony on U.S. responses to what they called the Arab Spring. Although the situation in each country is different, in all cases “our strategy is one of empowerment,” Posner said.
“We support and empower those in the region who are committed, as we are, to peaceful and democratic transition,” he added.
Wittes said U.S. interests in the region benefit from stability, but she said that means governments that are more democratic and responsive, not less so. “The changes under way in the region were driven by a rising generation unwilling to accept a status quo that denied them the opportunities they deserved, and a status quo that they knew was unsustainable. That’s a situation characterized by corruption, inequality, unemployment, resource depletion and political marginalization,” she said.
Posner said the United States is helping the transition to new forms of government in Tunisia and Egypt with aid for building democratic institutions, including political parties, where political participation had been limited. In Egypt, he said, “building the foundation for sustainable democracy” will take years, not months. U.S. aid also is going to economic development to help drive down high unemployment rates.
“Other states, including Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, have taken some initial positive steps toward political and economic reform, but all have more to do,” he said in written testimony. “In others, including Yemen and Bahrain, for example, much more work remains to reverse disturbing trends, hold security forces accountable for abuses, and initiate democratic reforms that improve equality and participation.”
The officials offered some specifics, country by country:
• In Egypt, they said, the United States will watch whether the transitional military government lifts emergency law before elections, as promised, and frees people arrested and, in some cases, sentenced for political protest. The United States also is concerned about sectarian violence, legal discrimination against religious minorities and the limited role of women in the transition.
• They offered strong praise for Tunisia’s interim government, which is supporting human rights and moving toward the election this summer of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. U.S. aid is supporting the transition.
• In Yemen, they said, the United States supports “a peaceful and orderly transfer of power in accordance with the Yemeni people’s demand for better governance that is more responsive to their needs and aspirations.”
• In Bahrain, the diplomats said, they are “deeply concerned” about what they called the government’s “campaign of retribution against elements of the political opposition, civil society, professional groups including medical practitioners, and Shia community leaders.”
• In Syria, too, they reiterated U.S. condemnation of the government’s crackdown against peaceful demonstrators and others who have supported human rights and democratic reforms.
• And in Libya, they cited the U.S. role in hindering Muammar Qadhafi’s attacks on opponents. In each case, they said, the U.S. effort has come in cooperation with other nations in multinational groups: the U.N. Human Rights Council, the European Union and the Arab League, among others.