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Human Rights Watch vs. Human Rights Watch on Obama’s Cairo Speech

What did the human-rights-promotion community think about the Cairo speech? According to vanguard organization Human Rights Watch’s official statement, emailed to me at 4:14 p.m. yesterday, not such great things. This release was titled “U.S./Egypt: Obama Dodged Rights Issue: Generalities Failed to Send Tough Message on Mideast Repression.”

President Barack Obama’s speech on June 4, 2009 failed to advance the promotion of human rights in the Muslim world, Human Rights Watch said today. In a much-anticipated address, Obama spoke bluntly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but kept to generalities when it came to the pressing need for human rights and democratic reforms in the region.

“If Obama wanted to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the US, he should have taken on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed, including his hosts,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt and others will interpret his bland generalities as a signal they have nothing to fear from their friends in Washington.”

Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama addressed democracy as a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world. His choice of Cairo for this much-anticipated speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents.

Only by 8:09 p.m., the group appeared to soft-peddle that message in a release entitled “Obama Mid-East Speech Supports Rights, Democracy: But U.S. Message Needs Stronger Message for Repressive Regional Allies”:

President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated June 4, 2009, speech to the Muslim world avoided confronting authoritarian governments directly, but sent a welcome message that Washington would not let the prospect of empowering Islamist parties deter it from supporting democracy in the region, Human Rights Watch said today.

Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama said the issue of democracy and human rights was a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world, in part because of the Bush administration’s use of democratic rhetoric to justify the war in Iraq. He pledged, however, that the United States would continue to support human rights and democratic principles in the region.

“For the US to regain credibility, it will have to follow through even when voters in the Middle East elect governments Washington doesn’t like,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Obama wants to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the United States, he should take on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed – including his hosts.”

Whitson’s comments, at least, are consistent between the two releases.

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