Is US ‘downgrading signature Mideast democracy program’?



MEPI/State Dept.

MEPI/State Dept.

The Barack Obama administration has downgraded what was once a marquee program to promote democracy in the Middle East — a sign, some critics say, that counterterrorism once again dominates the US agenda in the region, analyst Barbara Slavin writes for Al-Monitor. Established in 2002, the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) touts on its website its work in “18 countries and territories” and contributions of more than $600 million to “support civil society groups, political activists, and business leaders in their efforts for political and economic reform, government transparency, and accountability projects.” …

However, the program —traditionally headed by a political appointee — is now run by a career foreign service officer and has been subsumed into the larger foreign aid bureaucracy that also handles security assistance. One of two offices MEPI long operated in the region — in Tunisia — is being moved from the region’s only successful new democracy to Morocco, a monarchy.

“Unfortunately, MEPI seems to be in the process of being gutted and losing its identity,” Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Al-Monitor…… “The decline [in the emphasis on democracy promotion] accelerated over the past year — the time when Anne Patterson came back and became assistant secretary,” he said. “MEPI’s demise is indicative of a broader backing off from supporting civil society and falling back into the old pattern of not antagonizing old allies.”

The State Department vigorously contested this criticism. 

A senior State Department official said that Patterson had ordered the reorganization not to downplay democracy promotion but because it made more “managerial sense” to put all foreign aid programs to Middle Eastern countries under one office. The official added that the Tunis office was being moved to Morocco for “logistical and administrative reasons.”

Arab-Uprisings-Explained1-198x300The official conceded that there had been changes in the US approach to democracy promotion — using more indirect methods and bringing more individuals to the United States for programs — but said this was more a function of new limitations placed on civil society groups by Middle Eastern governments than any reorientation of US policy…..

In its first term, the Obama administration “decided to reinvent this agenda,” Tamara Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of MEPI, told Al-Monitor. “It was not the ‘freedom agenda’ [of George Bush] but a different way of addressing the same set of issues.”

Wittes, who left the State Department in 2012 and now directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor “what has happened is the re-emergence of counterterrorism as the lens through which US policy is seen and formulated.”

The United States “has made a decision that it is fully prepared to go back to the business of overlooking significant problems with domestic governance, human rights and economic stability in the name of smooth bilateral cooperation” with governments fighting Islamic militants, she said.

“Partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the US government,” Obama said Sept. 23, touting a presidential memorandum instructing US government departments and agencies to “consult and partner more regularly with civil society groups” and “oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression.”

According to Wittes, the irony is that the “Obama administration will leave office having brought Middle East policy full circle to what it was trying to get away from when it came in. The idea of supporting long-term political change has been pushed down the priority list to working with highly imperfect governments on a short-term counterterrorism agenda.”


Dancing with Dictators


poland solidarnoscTwenty-five years ago, breakthrough elections were held in Poland that led, within three months, to the downfall of that country’s communist regime, notes Eric Chenoweth, the co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and former editor in chief of the journal Uncaptive Minds.

The events helped to spark the Velvet Revolutions that spread, within the next six months, to Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Berlin, Sofia, Timisoara, and many other major cities, as masses of people went to the streets to demand their rights, oppose Soviet occupation, and win back their freedom. Communist despotisms that had lasted more than four decades collapsed like a house of cards. The world celebrated the fall of communism and the victory of democracy.

It all seemed so clear back then. But not now, he writes for World Affairs.

The recent death of Poland’s last communist dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, at the age of ninety, has cast a pall on the celebration of that election victory by Solidarity a quarter-century ago. Despite a public outcry, the country’s current and past democratically elected leaders granted Jaruzelski a state funeral and pride of place among Poland’s military and political heroes in Warsaw’s renowned Powazki Cemetery. Meanwhile, some of the country’s most significant politicians and intellectuals, led by Adam Michnik, once one of Solidarity’s key theorists, have exonerated and praised Jaruzelski, despite his imposition of martial law in December 1981 aimed at destroying Solidarity. Michnik describes Jaruzelski as a Polish patriot who chose the “lesser evil” of martial law to stave off Soviet invasion and who, when given the opportunity, later took the “wise decision” to “unshackle the chains” he had originally bound the country with.


Past as prologue? Call to fix US ‘human rights misstep’ with Vietnam

Vietnam_cu huyThe United States government made a mistake this month in relaxing a ban on lethal arms sales and transfers to Vietnam — a non-democratic, one-party state with an abysmal human rights record, says a leading rights activist.

The U.S. move, announced on October 2 as Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh was visiting Washington, undermines courageous activists in Vietnam and squanders important leverage that might have been used to encourage more reform, according to John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. 

An American diplomat says that Vietnam has made some progress in terms of its human-rights record, including the release this year of 11 prisoners of conscience. But a full lifting of the lethal-arms embargo, the diplomat says, would depend on “additional progress”, The Economist notes:

That may be some way off. Yet Tuong Vu, a Vietnam expert at the University of Oregon, says the American shift is a “clear case” of strategic interests trumping human rights. Many dissidents remain behind bars, and the one-party state continues to arrest its critics under worryingly vague national-security laws.

Cu Huy Ha Vu* (above), one of the political prisoners who was recently freed, is a Sorbonne-educated lawyer who was jailed in 2011 for, among other crimes, calling for multiparty government. After his release, Mr Ha Vu, the son of a revolutionary poet, flew directly to Washington, DC. He says he would one day like to see both a democratic Vietnam and a military alliance with America against Chinese expansionism. But, he adds, selling spy planes today, amid continuing domestic repression, only prolongs the regime’s survival.

Torture is still endemic in Vietnam, and the government has taken no steps towards scrapping laws that criminalize free speech or political organization,  Sifton writes for Foreign Policy:

Most recently released prisoners were terminally ill or otherwise incapacitated by poor health. In the case of the higher profile dissident Cu Huy Ha Vu — a lawyer and former Communist Party member who has criticized government leaders for corruption and mismanagement — the government did not release him but rather forced him into exile in the United States, where Hanoi believes he will be less able to organize opposition to Vietnam’s one-party rule.

*Cu Huy Ha Vu is a Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

North Korea admits to labor camps: Kim Jong Un to ICC?

nkgulag-300x202-150x150The European Union has reportedly submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations seeking the referral of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, UPI reports:

“It marks the first time that a U.N. resolution on North Korea human rights includes a plan to bring the North Korean leadership to an international court over anti-human rights charges,” a diplomatic source told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

North Korean officials have gone on a publicity blitz — making a rare move to take questions at the United Nations, arranging human rights talks with the European Union, and taking a high-level trip to South Korea, CNN’s Stanton Park reports:

The EU is taking the lead in drafting a resolution regarding the regime’s human rights violations in the General Assembly. Ri announced that North Korea and EU officials will hold dialogue at the end of the year to remove “misunderstanding.”

When the North Korean officials at the U.N. briefing were asked Tuesday to identify human rights problems in their country, Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean responded, “We need some facilities where people go and enjoy a bath… Right now, due to problems in the economic field — that is due to the external forces hindrance — we are running short of some of the facilities.”

Observers view these latest entreaties from North Korea with skepticism.

“I think they want various parties to loosen sanctions as we saw in the case of Japan,” said Joshua Stanton, a North Korea watcher……”What they’re trying to do is divide and conquer the international community to make sure they’re not facing concerted efforts for sanctions,” said Stanton, who writes on the site, One Free Korea.

North Korea publicly acknowledged the existence of its labor camps for the first time Tuesday, an admission that appeared to come in response to a highly critical U.N. human rights report earlier this year, AP’s Cara Anna reports:

Diplomats for the reclusive, impoverished country also told reporters that a top North Korea official has visited the headquarters of the European Union and expressed interest in dialogue, with discussions on human rights expected next year……

The report’s release in February put the North on the defensive. Its acknowledgement Tuesday of the reform camps, and its overture to the EU rights chief, were signs that Pyongyang now realizes the discussion of its human rights record won’t fade away, said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. He said the mention of the reform camps was a first.

“While the North Korean human rights record remains abysmal, it is very important that senior North Korean officials are now speaking about human rights, and expressing even pro forma interest in dialogue,” Scarlatoiu said in an email. “The North Korean strategic approach to human rights issues used to be to simply ignore reports by international NGOs, government agencies or U.N. bodies. Human rights used to just go away, out-competed by nukes, missiles, and military provocations.”

The head of the inquiry, Michael Kirby, called on the UN to take action. “Contending with the great scourges of Nazism, [South African] apartheid, the Khmer Rouge and other affronts required courage by great nations and ordinary human beings alike,” Kirby told reporters in March.

China’s Hong Kong conspiracy theories a familiar ruse

china hk march july 2014Rather than address the underlying grievances motivating Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, China’s ruling Communist Party is promoting predictable conspiracy theories about the demonstrations.

Accusing opponents of foreign meddling has become an increasingly popular tool for the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping, David Pierson writes for the Los Angeles Times:

Xi has ordered his censorship apparatus to bar discourse on Western democracy, one of several forbidden topics deemed threatening to China’s heightened nationalistic temperament. That narrative emphasizes a Western world intent on containing China’s rise. ….

Beijing has long been wary of American influence in the color revolutions that swept Eastern Europe and the Arab world. Beijing supporters accuse nongovernmental organizations such as the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy of channeling money to advocacy groups to destabilize China. (The NED denies this.)

“After 110 years of foreign predation, the communists took power [in 1949] arguing that China has stood up,” said Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC U.S.-China Institute. “Blaming the foreigners plays into all of that.”

With the 25th anniversary of the 1989 June 4th crackdown still fresh in memory (at least outside mainland China), much coverage of Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests has been shadowed by fear of a similarly harsh response, notes China Digital Times:

Voices of some of those involved in the events surrounding Tiananmen have been prominently featured, while others have offered counsel on avoiding the same fate. While the outcome of the protests remains uncertain, any threat of a military response seems to have receded. At Foreign Affairs, in any case, Jeffrey Wasserstrom urges the use of wider, more varied historical lenses for viewing the Umbrella Movement:

Although there has been some excellent on-the-ground reporting by journalists who know China and its past well, this time around, much media commentary of the protests in Hong Kong has locked onto the Tiananmen-reborn analogy. …. That analogy works fine when there is a direct repeat of something that happened in 1989, such as when Beijing tries again to portray peaceful students as following in the footsteps of the Red Guards. But when something new happens, observers are at a loss and look, once more, beyond China’s border for explanation, which helps explain why journalists have made so many references to the Color Revolution, despite the fact that the protesters themselves insist that the analogy is misleading, since they are just asking for Beijing to live up to the One Country, Two Systems promise it made in 1997. [Source]

The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda argues that the 2011 uprising against local officials in Wukan offers a better guide:

Structurally, the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong bears several similarities to Wukan–merely on a different scale. Both communities rose up after sensing that the Party had reneged on a prior understanding. In Wukan, there was no community input before the land sale and Hongkongers were stripped of their democratic right to freely stand for election without Beijing’s prior approval. Both communities protested peacefully (with a few exceptions, to be sure). Indeed, the two instances are so similar that Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly has tapped Wang Yang, the governor of Guangdong during the Wukan protests and currently a vice premier on the politburo, to “remain on standby” to handle the situation in Hong Kong…….. [Source]