The US called on Turkey to release human rights activist Osman Kavala, who has been in prison for three years without being convicted of any crime. The reports come as the new US administration of President Joe Biden has been coming down hard on human rights abuses and taking up high profile cases, from Russia's Alexei Navalny to praising Saudi Arabia's release of Loujain al-Hathloul.
Under the last US administration, authoritarian regimes around the world were rarely critiqued on their human rights record. Although the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did slam China for "genocide" just prior to leaving office, there was no meaningful US approach to supporting human rights during the Trump administration. Because of the fragmented nature of the administration, some officials did push various agendas that dovetailed with human rights issues, but the White House rarely paid notice. For instance, Richard Grenell, ambassador to Germany and then acting director of national intelligence, pushed for decriminalizing homosexuality in 68 countries, but articles notice the US achieved little on this issue.
The Trump administration rarely critiqued authoritarian regimes on their human rights records.
Biden made it clear human rights is part of the "America is back" approach, which is very different from the "America first" approach of his predecessor. He made it clear in comments to the US State Department on February 4: "We'll confront China's economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China's attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance," he said. Now the US is also going after coup leaders in Myanmar. Under the former US administration, there was little interest in abuses in places like Myanmar. Biden also spoke to Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week, and reports note he mentioned the clampdown on rights in Hong Kong.
Egypt has released a journalist from Al Jazeera named Mahmoud Hussein after four years in detention. This appears linked to concerns over US pressure on human rights. It does not look like it was a coincidence he was held for the four years of the last administration and suddenly released.
The administration of former US president Donald Trump, now facing his second impeachment even though he is out of office, appeared to ask foreign authoritarian leaders to compete for US support. The competition was not predicated on human rights, but a transactional foreign policy that often revolved around things like arms sales and praise for Trump personally. Trump even seemed to mock the Egyptian leader, calling him his "favorite dictator."
Under Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a direct line to the White House, often calling Trump and demanding US concessions, threatening US troops, kidnapping a US pastor and berating the US for training anti-ISIS fighters. Erdogan even sent presidential security to attack US protesters in Washington, DC, an unprecedented attack on peaceful protesters on US soil.
At the behest of the White House, little was done to stop the attack or bring charges. Later, Turkey pushed extremist Syrian rebel groups it had armed and recruited to hunt down unarmed Kurdish female activists in Syria. Turkey's press celebrated the murder of Hevrin Khalaf, an activist in Syria, and it appears Turkish-backed Syrian groups had direct support from Ankara to "neutralize" her. Turkish-backed groups have kidnapped dozens of women in Turkish-occupied Afrin, which Ankara ethnically cleansed of 160,000 Kurds in 2018. None of this faced pushback from the White House, which appeared to support Erdogan's actions. Former US national security adviser John Bolton and others were shocked by how close the US president was to Turkey's regime and its abuses. Former US Syria envoy James Jeffrey and others appeared silent on the abuses as well.
Now the tone may be changing. The release of Loujain al-Hathloul is timed well with the incoming administration. The US speaking out about Kavala is only the tip of the iceberg of abuses in Turkey. Turkey's regime has been bashing homosexuals recently and attacking student protesters, calling them "terrorists." Turkey continues to threaten to bomb Yazidi minorities in Iraq and has imprisoned people for tweets and forced many journalists into exile. However, the mention of Kavala is symbolic. At the end of the day, the US can't reverse all the human rights abuses in the Middle East or other countries, but it has taken up several symbolic cases.
The difference in tone means countries know they are at least being watched in terms of their behavior. The former US administration presided over a period of unprecedented rise of authoritarian regimes, from Turkey to Iran, Russia, China and other countries. It was a period in which any hopes of democratization in parts of the world were reversed. Consider the difference to the era of the 1990s, widely seen as a kind of Pax Americana or "new world order," as George H.W. Bush termed it. That was a period when the US used force for humanitarian intervention. Critiqued for being overzealous and thinking bombs could bring rights, George Bush shifted strategy to "pre-emption." It is important to note that despite many failures of the 1990s policies, the US did help make Kosovo independent and put wind in the sails of movements by South Sudan and East Timor to become countries. Other places, like Somaliland, or Palestinian demands for statehood, were less successful.
When George W. Bush's attempt at democratization in the Middle East and Afghanistan had mixed success, there was a denouement during the Obama years. Although Obama spoke about key issues in his Cairo speech, the result of the Arab Spring was more extremism, not more democracy. Exceptions exist. While the Palestinians don't have elections these days, Iraq does have elections and Afghanistan has a more consultative system than under the Taliban. Tunisia is a success story, so far, of the Arab Spring. In general countries in the Gulf have moved to push tolerance and coexistence and the threat of extremism has been reduced in the heart of the Middle East. This is a mixed legacy, but what is clear is that the US retreat into isolationism and the trend from Obama to Trump of withdrawal from the region, did not lead to human rights taking center stage.
While the Trump administration did take action on Iran's abuses in the region, it rarely did so systematically with an eye to actually improve human rights. For instance, bans on people entering the US from Iran, and bans on refugees impacted Iranian dissidents. Although it appeared the US was talking tough on Iran and also pushing for support for minorities, like Christians in the Middle East, the US did little for Iranian exiles and dissidents under the Trump administration. The US officials, because the State Department had appointed pro-Erdogan regime officials, also ignored human rights in Syria, enabling Ankara-backed extremists to abuse human rights, target women, and disappear activists. Furthermore, the US did little to stop attacks on Christian and Yazidi minorities by Turkish-backed extremists from Tel Abyad to Afrin. When it came to wars, like between Azerbaijan and Armenian fighters, the US was absent and didn't appear to publicly even bother to put out statements, ignoring complaints of locals about shelling of civilians.
It is unclear if all this will change. While some in Syria have hopes that the US, EU and NATO will stop empowering Turkey's attacks on civilians in places like Afrin, others are concerned about a potential Turkish attack on the Yazidi minority of Sinjar. The Yazidis were victims of ISIS genocide and have now been under attack by Ankara. There are so many different human rights concerns in the Middle East, such as the assassination of Lokman Slim in Lebanon, that it is difficult for the US administration to deal with all of them. However, initial statements and moves appear to be centering US policies on human rights. Even before the US has made key phone calls to the region, human rights have come up.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.