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Does the U.S. Actually Care About Human Rights in the Middle East?

By Dale Sprusansky, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by Middle Eastern governments, along with their advocates, gathered at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Nov. 21 to implore the U.S. government to place greater value on human rights in its foreign policy. The National Interest Foundation sponsored the event.

Numerous speakers noted that the U.S. approach to human rights violations is steeped in hypocrisy. They pointed out that abuses committed by foes such as Iran and Syria are continually highlighted, while those perpetrated by countries that have an amicable relationship with the U.S., such as Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are overlooked or downplayed.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, challenged the notion that security and oil interests ought to be given higher priority than human rights. Given its status as a superpower, he finds it concerning and bizarre that fear of angering less powerful nations directs policy away from human rights. “The U.S. should disentangle itself from a number of these countries,” he said. “The admonition to first do no harm would be a very good starting point for American foreign policy.”

Mohamed Soltan, a U.S. citizen who spent 21 months in an Egyptian prison from 2013-2015, shared this sentiment. Washington ought to “recognize how much these authoritarian regimes really depend on the legitimacy they get from the United States government,” he said. “I sit here before you today as living testament of that leverage. We do have leverage that we simply choose not to use.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, offered a more cynical take on the U.S. projecting power. Unless Washington first acknowledges and corrects its own human rights violations in the region, its sanctimonious stand for human rights will have no credibility or impact, she asserted.

As one example, she noted the suffering inflicted on Palestinians as a result of U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel. “Let’s put aside the notion of democracy promotion and just stop aiding a government that continues to massacre protesters in Gaza and that continues to destroy Palestinian homes,” she implored.

Bandow said the U.S. placing devastating sanctions on Iran discredits the oft-repeated line that the U.S. supports the struggle for human rights in Iran. “To stand and scream about human rights when you’re doing your best to impoverish and starve the people in that country doesn’t give you much credibility,” he argued. “If you want to have any improvement in human rights in Iran, it would be useful to have some positive tools to use. It’s very hard to do that when you’ve sanctioned everything that exists on earth dealing with Iran.”

Soltan remarked that many in the Washington policymaking bubble simply don’t understand the suffering caused by their support for strongmen. As an example, he shared a conversation he had with then-Secretary of State John Kerry shortly after Soltan was released from prison. “I was absolutely baffled that for such a seasoned diplomat and someone who had been on the Senate Foreign Relations [Committee], he had not really seen the human side of things and did not see the nuance,” he said. “I had to explain to Secretary Kerry that I had to hear him—literally from a smuggled radio inside of an Egyptian dungeon—saying that the Egyptian army is restoring democracy in Egypt.”

Soltan encouraged those “sitting up on the mountain in Washington looking down upon the Middle East as statistics, from a security lens” to step back and consider “the conditions that these governments and these autocratic regimes and dictators put the people in.”

Areej Al Sadhan, a U.S.-Saudi dual national, shared the story of her brother, who was arrested at his office at the Red Crescent in Riyadh and is being held in an unknown location by Saudi authorities. Arrested for expressing concerns about human rights on social media, Al Sadhan believes her brother is a victim of the recently uncovered spying agreement between the Saudi government and former Twitter executives. She implored the U.S. to help her brother and other victims. “These victims are counting on people like us who can talk and on the U.S. government to say something and take action,” she said. “The U.S. government does have the strength and power to say something and make a true change.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) spoke about the ongoing quest for justice for slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who resided in his northern Virginia congressional district. He said the Washington Post journalist’s gruesome murder must be a red line and that the U.S.-Saudi relationship can’t continue uninterrupted. “There are some human rights values that ought to be preeminent, that ought to govern our affairs with other countries, and our government and our foreign policy,” he said.

Amel Ahmed, a journalist covering the Yemen war, emphasized that Jamal Khashoggi is representative of the struggle for freedom throughout the region. “At the moment there are millions of Khashoggis who cry out for freedom and dream of a better future,” she said. “Who will elevate their voices? You cannot obtain justice for Khashoggi without including the voices of other Arab reformers and dissidents who have been driven under ground and silenced.”