Human rights advocates fear the Obama administration may be putting the issue on the back burner to focus instead on coping with the global economic crisis and national security.
President Barack Obama sought the moral high ground on human rights with his early order to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and declaration that the United States would never again torture prisoners.
Those moves, which won nearly unanimous international praise, were made nearly immediately after Obama took office as he sought to repair the US image abroad, correcting what he believed were mistaken Bush administration policies that had left the United States on the diplomatic outs with much of the world, even with some traditional allies.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dulled the luster, rights advocates say, when she said during a trip to Asia that the administration remains deeply concerned about human rights in China but cannot let that interfere with cooperation with Beijing on the worldwide economic crisis and the fight to ease global climate change.
"We fear she may be setting this tone as a signal to the rest of the world that human rights are not going to be one of the main issues for the administration," said T. Kumar, Amnesty International advocacy director for Asia. "Trade and security should not be promoted at the expense of human rights." Clinton did have a different message Thursday after a Washington meeting with China's foreign minister, noting that she and Yang Jiechi had a significant engagement on human rights and the situation in Tibet.
"Human rights is part of our comprehensive dialogue" with China, she said. "It doesn't take a front seat, a back seat or a middle seat. It is part of the broad range of issues that we are discussing."
Beyond China, however, there is a considerable list of Obama positions that have raised doubts about how far the new president will shift from the policies of his predecessor.
- The administration has filed a legal brief that echoed former President George W. Bush's position in maintaining that detainees in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights and arguing that enemy combatants held there at Bagram Air Field cannot use US courts to challenge their detention.
- Government lawyers continued to invoke the state secrets law in a federal court case that involves the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, in which US operatives seized foreign suspects and handed them over to other countries for questioning. The law blocks the release of evidence the government deems secret and potentially harmful to US security.
- The administration is feeling out Uzbekistan, which has one of the worst human rights records among the former Soviet republics, about using an air base to provide supplies and troops to Afghanistan. The move became necessary after neighboring Kyrgyzstan declared it was canceling the US lease for a base in that Central Asian country.
- Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently scaled back expectations in Afghanistan greatly, declaring the United States was not going to be able to leave behind anything close to a Western-style democracy. The US rationale for its seven-year engagement in the country rested partly on having driven the Taliban from power.
The Islamic fundamentalists ran a brutal regime that was particularly harsh in its treatment of women. The Obama administration said recently that it was ready to approach Taliban members who are willing to work with the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
Those and other rights issues trouble advocates, but they emphasize Clinton's very public remarks regarding China. "Part of her challenge diplomatically is going to be able to work on many fronts," said Amnesty International's Curt Goering. "The United States cannot be credible on any issue unless it remains credible on human rights."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked this week about comments by the Dalai Lama, the revered leader of Tibetan Buddhists who fled to exile as Tibet's 1959 uprising against Chinese rule collapsed. The Dalai Lama said Tibetans were living in "hell on Earth" because of Chinese repression.
"The United States respects the territorial integrity of China and considers Tibet to be part of China," Gibbs said. "At the same time, we're concerned about the human rights situation in Tibet." Gibbs noted that Washington believes the Chinese government increased cultural and religious repression in Tibetan areas last year, and urged Beijing to engage in further negotiations with the exiled leader.
"We believe that substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama's representatives that makes progress and brings about solutions to long-standing issues is the best way to achieve true and lasting stability in Tibet," Gibbs said, in a muted response to the perennial and fundamental human rights sore point. State Department spokesman Robert Wood also rebutted the criticism in response to a Washington Post editorial that said Clinton "continues to devalue and undermine the US diplomatic tradition of human rights advocacy."
Wood said: "She realizes you have to sit down with, for example, her Chinese counterpart and make these points on human rights. But she also knows that's not necessarily going to get you what you want at the end of the day, so you've got to find new and creative ways to influence the human rights situation in China and that's what she's trying to do."
Obama and Clinton are likely to face even stiffer criticism as they move forward with a policy designed to repair the global standing of the United States. They are trying to show world leaders that Washington is once again determined to engage the world through diplomacy rather than what critics saw as the Bush administration's tendency to rely on diktat.
The mission appears to be especially delicate when it comes to human rights, an issue that stands to block linkage with a number of countries unless the administration finds a way to finesse it by maintaining Washington's historic standards while not using them as a blunt instrument.