A year after President Obama called for a new beginning in U.S. relations with the Muslim world, it remains unclear the role human rights play in Washington’s policies in the Arab region. While the recently released National Security Strategy includes the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad as a core foreign policy value, there are lingering questions as to how this will be translated into action.

Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Tamara Cofman Wittes discussed current U.S. policy toward human rights in the Arab countries at a July 1 event cosponsored by the Carnegie Endowment and the Heinrich Boll Foundation. Two leading Arab human rights advocates—Bahey El Din Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Amal Basha of the Sisters' Arab Forum for Human Rights in Yemen—discussed the human rights situation in the region and their perceptions of U.S. policies. Carnegie's Michele Dunne moderated.

A Critical Moment for U.S. Policy

Posner described the United States as facing a critical moment in a number of Arab countries, particularly Egypt. He described the upcoming elections in Egypt as a test and said "It’s absolutely essential that we be clear about what we’re doing and that we act decisively.” He described the facets of the Obama administration’s engagement with human rights in the Arab world:

  • Principled engagement: Principled engagement means taking part in the global discussion on human rights rather than standing outside of it. The Obama administration has done this through joining the UN Human Rights Council, working towards reengaging with the Assembly of State Parties for the International Criminal Court, and by making sure that human rights is an important part of administration discussions with both friendly and unfriendly nations.
  • A standard for human rights: The Obama administration supports the notion of a single universal standard of human rights. “We must work to hold ourselves accountable to the highest standard,” asserted Posner. He cited examples of how the administration has tried to lead by example, such as the three executive orders issued by the president on his second day in office, which ended the policy of official cruelty, committed to closing down Guantanamo, and pushed for humane prisoners’ rights.
  • Change from within: “It’s impossible, certainly very difficult, to force change from the outside.” Posner stated. “Societies change from within. But there have to be the building blocks, there has to be the framework.” The involvement of civil society is a primary facet of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Posner said. “Our job is to make sure that we do what we can to allow you [civil society activists] the space to operate in your own society and to push for change from within.”

Human Rights in the Region

Wittes acknowledged that in many countries in the region, human rights gains over the past few decades have been receding. She argued that there is no contradiction for the United States between pursuing its national interests and pushing for human rights. Wittes also pointed to the demographic struggle occurring in the Middle East and North Africa, where the youth are struggling to carve a path for themselves, and said that the U.S. administration recognizes the need to help the rising generation and has developed programs to help empower youth.

A Year after Cairo 

Hassan took a close look at President Obama’s Cairo speech, pointing out sections from the speech which the United States has yet to make progress on. Hassan mentioned Israeli settlements, which Obama in his speech said needed to stop. He also pointed to U.S. policies that were contradicting Obama’s claim to support freedom of speech, rule of law, and transparency around the world. He listed several U.S. steps that have hindered the growth of freedoms in the region, including:

  • U.S. support for the Yemeni government;
  • The perceived approval given to the rigged elections in Sudan;
  • U.S. acceptance of the Egyptian government’s politicized definition of a non-governmental organization (NGO) and agreement to vet with the Egyptian government NGOs to whom USAID wishes to give grants.


Posner spoke about the administration’s commitment to promoting human rights in Egypt, where some have accused the United States of being more interested in supporting a friendly regime than in promoting human rights. Posner asserted that the United States recognized that Egypt’s long-standing emergency law, which circumscribes freedom of expression and freedom to congregate, is “contradictory to notions of human rights.”

Looking forward, Posner described the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt as “a test for us and a test for Egypt; it’s a test for everybody concerned about human rights. This is a moment we need to be calling for an open political process and calling for independent observers, both Egyptian and international.”  He expressed the Obama administration’s commitment to working with democracy, civil society, and human rights activists inside Egypt during the election process.


While Yemen has a large number of security agencies in its borders, its people have no real sense of security, said Amal Basha. The country has become home to extremists and al-Qaeda, and it has become difficult and even dangerous to promote human rights in the region.

U.S. governments throughout the years have made mistakes that have damaged any human rights advances, including the air strike in Yemen in which 52 civilians were killed. She pointed out that while governments are often willing to accept a certain amount of collateral damage while fighting terrorism, such deaths are perceived poorly by inhabitants of the region and harden attitudes towards the West.

Yemen is a key example of a country where security changes are taking place, Wittes said, and the government of Yemen must adopt a comprehensive approach to addressing issues such as corruption, capacity building, and the protection of its citizens.

A Wide Gap

The presentations and ensuring discussion made clear that, while the U.S. officials believe the Obama administration has come a distance in developing its policies toward human rights in the Arab world, Arab human rights activists believe their governments are still behaving as though there is no serious U.S. interest or pressure on these issues.  Michele Dunne closed the session by proposing a continuing public dialogue on these important questions in order to close this gap.