9-24-2013By Brenda Bowser Soder
This afternoon, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor nominee Tom Malinowski. The hearing is likely to spark a lively conversation about a wide range of topics, including Syria, Russia, Guantanamo, religious freedom and LGBT rights.
Below are Human Rights First’s top 10 questions Senators should pose as they examine Malinowski’s take on a number of key human rights issues facing the Obama Administration:
1. What are your recommendations to adapt and change U.S. policy in the Middle East and how will you pursue that vision?
The Arab Spring protests started in 2011 around the Middle East have challenged the paradigm of the U.S. position in the region of the last 40 years. Mubarak and Ben Ali have been overthrown, the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain is under pressure, and the rest of region is a tinderbox. With it, the U.S. reputation and position has weakened and dangerous protests are directed against the United States now, as well. Malinowski should outline his strategy to promote democracy and human rights in this region.
2. Do you believe the State Department has the most effective strategy for promoting religious freedom, particularly in the Middle East? If not, what would you recommend at this point? Separately, what will you do as Assistant Secretary to discourage the spread of blasphemy laws in countries around the world and to uphold basic freedoms from efforts to protect religion from offense or insult?
U.S. advocacy for religious freedom is one of the most important aspects of the Bureau. The issue is even more central to U.S. foreign policy as we see sectarian divides fueling extreme violence in the Middle East. Congress has mandated an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and the House just passed a bill to create a position at the State Department dedicated to advocating for religious minorities in the Middle East.
Additionally, accusations of blasphemy or of insulting religious figures are a threat to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. The issue of blasphemy is often exploited by extremists to incite violence. Religious minorities and dissidents of various kinds are vulnerable to persecution with blasphemy used as the pretext for it.
Malinowski should detail his recommendations for promoting religious freedom, as well as how he plans to address blasphemy laws and how they are often used to limit freedom of expression around the globe.
3. How do you intend to promote and improve U.S. government engagement with civil society and how will that be improved by the Principles on Support for Human Rights Defenders?
In March of this year, the State Department issued its Principles on Support for Human Rights Defenders, which outline a strategy for protecting and supporting the work of defenders. These include a recommendation for embassy personnel to attend hearings and observe trials. Senators should probe how Malinowski plans to put these principles into action.
4. Given the President’s pledge to have “the most transparent administration,” and clear commitment to turn the page on our failed post-9/11 experiment on torture, will you work to ensure that the administration supports a process by which the SSCI can make public its study?
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) has adopted a comprehensive, 6000 plus page study on the post 9/11 CIA interrogation program. The report remains in limbo as the committee considers next steps. Senators should ask Malinowski if plans to publicly support calls to release the committee’s findings.
5. What will you do as Assistant Secretary to help the administration fulfill its commitment to close Guantanamo? How do you describe the impact of Guantanamo on our foreign relations?
In a 2011 interview discussing Guantanamo, Malinowski observed, “But there is a real danger that if the mechanism that President Obama uses to deal with these very difficult remaining cases he still has in Guantanamo -about 46, 48 prisoners left who he’s decided are hard to prosecute, but too dangerous to release – if that mechanism gets put in to place in a way that can be applied in the future to people we capture next year, 10 years from now, 50 years from now, then that Guantanamo principle of detention without charge will be with us forever.” Malinowski should be asked to detail how he will work within the administration to close Guantanamo and bring the number of detainees there down to zero.
6. What steps will you take to continue with and increase the current efforts to advance LGBT rights and help protect LGBT people from violence?
Advancing the human rights of LGBT people around the world is a priority of the Obama Administration. Though the U.S. has taken various public steps to engage the issue of LGBT rights at home and abroad, LGBT people continue to be targeted for violence because of who they are in places such as Cameroon, Brazil, South Africa and Russia. Senators provide Malinowski with the opportunity to express how the 2011 Presidential Memorandum on International Initiatives to Advance the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) persons will shape his approach to protecting the rights of LGBT people around the globe.
7. What’s at stake for the U.S. in Bahrain? Do you agree that the current course is failing? What new strategy would you recommend the U.S. pursue to promote progress on human rights and rule of law there, given our other interests as well?
The Arab Spring in Bahrain has been a story of severe repression, as the Bahraini Government has cracked down harshly, torturing and arresting protestors, detaining journalists and bloggers, and imprisoning most credible members of the political opposition. The U.S. has multiple interests in Bahrain, most prominently the Fifth Fleet, and it has tried to engage the ruling family in Bahrain as friends. Despite that approach, repeated promises from the Kingdom have fallen short of actual performance. Just recently, the Bahraini Justice Department introduced a regulation requiring diplomatic contacts between political groups and foreign governments to be sanctioned by the Bahraini government. Even the U.S. Ambassador and other U.S. diplomats have been attacked in the Bahrain government press and sanctioned by the Bahrain cabinet for meddling in internal Bahrain affairs. Senators should ask Malinowski to detail how he would deal with these challenges.
8. What can the United States do to use its influence with Egypt to reverse this disturbing trend of increasing human rights violations, and how can the U.S. begin to repair the poor relations between the U.S. embassy in Cairo and parts of Egyptian civil society?
Since the military takeover on July 3, Egypt has been home to serious human rights violations – including mass killings of demonstrators, arbitrary detention and restrictions on the media. Attacks against Christians, including the burning down of churches, have spiked in recent months and the level of violence in Sinai is escalating.
Since the Arab Spring, the United States has come to be seen as, at best, a passive enabler, and, at worst, an active supporter, of successive repressive regimes from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to President Morsi to the current military backed interim government. Malinowski should outline his vision for a new approach to relations with Egypt and Egyptian civil society.
9. Beyond working to uphold the international norm against the possession or use of chemical weapons, what should the United States do to better protect the civilian population in Syria from ongoing mass atrocities and crimes against humanity that have already claimed over 100,000 lives?
The Obama Administration has given intense focus to ensuring that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria on August 14 is met by an appropriately strong international response. Senators should ask Malinowski to discuss how he would use his new post to implement a broad strategy to protect civilian lives in Syria and bring that nation’s crisis to an end.
10. DRL’s monitoring of the human rights situation in Russia has been superb and relies on first-hand information from activists in Russia, with whom U.S. officials consult regularly. How can we ensure that DRL’s findings and observations about human rights in Russia are better reflected in the bilateral dialogue at the highest level?
The ambiguous and antigay law banning the “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations to minors was enacted by President Putin in June 2013 and capped a year of feverish legislative efforts that sought to restrict the fundamental rights of Russians. Reacting to thousands-strong protests over alleged election-rigging, the Kremlin doubled-down on anti-American, xenophobic, and homophobic sentiments and quickly spearheaded harmful amendments to the laws on mass protests, treason, nongovernmental organizations, adoptions by foreigners, and internet freedom.
After rising by some 20 percent annually, the number of racist violent attacks on migrants and foreigners is finally reducing, as the Russian police continue to go after the perpetrators of these violent crimes, many of whom received appropriately harsh prison terms during the past two years. Yet, following the passage of the anti-“propaganda” law that puts restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly for LGBT Russians, independent monitors have recorded an uptick in antigay violence, perpetrated by vigilante ultranationalist groups or homophobic Russians who view the antigay law as a call to violent action. According to gay rights groups, most homophobic violent acts go without proper investigation by the police.
Senators should ask Malinowski how he plans to address the challenges in Russia and what steps he would advocate to promote tolerance and accountability there.