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Obama Signals Foreign-Policy Shift With Focus On Human Rights, Freedom

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 23.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 23.
By RFE/RL
Speaking on September 23 at the UN General Assembly in his second annual address to the United Nations, U.S. President Barack Obama described a new foreign policy to guide Washington in the years ahead.

"The idea is a simple one -- that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings," Obama said. "For the United States, this is a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity."

Obama's remarks followed a similar speech on September 22 at the UN Millennium Development Goals summit in which he announced that "the United States is changing the way we do business" in its foreign-aid policy.

In that speech, Obama said Washington would stop measuring its development efforts in terms of dollars spent and the food and medicines delivered. Instead, he said, Washington would "seek partners who want to build their own capacity to provide for their people."

Earlier in his presidency, Obama only lightly stressed the importance of human rights and democracy as a pillar of his foreign policy. Instead, he focused more on the "mutual interests" of countries as a way to promote the goals of the U.S. economic and national-security agenda.

But Obama's September 23 speech appears to signal a modification in that approach, shifting Washington's emphasis toward efforts that encourage economic and political reforms from within other countries.

"Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short-term stability, or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom," Obama said. "We see leaders abolishing term limits, crackdowns on civil society, and corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely."

Obama's new approach would put the focus on responsibility and accountability for human rights on the part of governments around the world.

'A Voice For The Voiceless'

Although he did not name any specific country as having an oppressive regime, Obama criticized government crackdowns on civil society like those that have taken place in Venezuela, Egypt, and Iran.

"America is working to shape a world that fosters this openness -- for the rot of a closed or corrupt economy must never eclipse the energy and innovation of human beings," Obama said.

Mock hangings are performed at a rally in protest against the presence of the Iranian President at the UN General Assembly.
Obama also called on citizens of countries that have emerged from totalitarian regimes in recent decades to stand up for civil society and the rights of individuals across the globe.

"The world that America seeks is not one that we can build on our own. For human rights to reach those who suffer the boot of oppression, we need your voices to speak out. In particular, I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century -- from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to South America," Obama said.

"Do not stand idly by when dissidents everywhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others."

The approach described by Obama stresses the importance of nongovernmental organizations and other groups in civil society as the fomenters of liberty.

"Civil society is the conscience of our communities, and America will always extend our engagement abroad with citizens beyond the halls of government. We will call out those who suppress ideas and [we will] serve as a voice for the voiceless," Obama said.

"We will promote new tools of communication so people are empowered to connect with one another -- and, in repressive societies, to do so with security."

Azerbaijani, Kyrgyz Test Cases

Obama's approach differs from the so-called "freedom agenda" of former U.S. President George W. Bush, which went beyond support for grassroots civic organizations to include direct outside influence on oppressive regimes.

Obama's aides describe his approach as "pragmatic," saying it is focused less on rhetoric and more on building the capacity for the protection of freedom and human rights in emerging democracies.

But critics say it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will practice the policies that he prescribed in his speech to the UN General Assembly.

That could be tested as soon as today in meetings that Obama has on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and Kyrgyzstan's President Roza Otunbaeva.

Aliyev's regime has been deemed by nongovernmental groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as having, at best, a subpar human rights record -- with low assessments on both political rights and civil liberties. Opposition activists and independent journalists have been routinely harassed and jailed. This week, the relatives of two jailed bloggers appealed to Obama to press for their release in his talks with Aliyev.

Rights groups also have questioned Kyrgyzstan's commitment to investigating this summer's deadly ethnic clashes and ensuring fair trials for those being prosecuted.

Azerbaijan's vast Caspian Sea oil reserves make it economically important to the United States. For strategic purposes, both Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan are important to the United States as transit routes for nonlethal supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Oxfam International, a U.K.-based nongovernmental charity group, praised Obama's UN speeches this week -- calling his remarks "awesome."

Oxfam says it is joining with its "friends and colleagues around the world to celebrate" Obama's remarks. But the group says it "will hold the president accountable for delivering" on his words.

written by Ron Synovitz in Prague
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