Is Talking to Beijing About Human Rights a Waste of Time?

Why Obama's new meetings with China should only be the beginning.

Why aren't human rights activists who work on China more enthusiastic about the upcoming meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials on the critical topic of human rights? The discussions, to begin in Washington on May 13, are the first human rights dialogue between the two countries since May 2008 and the first to be hosted by President Barack Obama's administration. Yet expectations that the meetings will produce any meaningful change, or even a clear set of goals, are remarkably low.

It's of course natural to have low hopes for a human rights dialogue with China, given how bad its record on the issue is. In the last month alone, we've observed two important nongovernmental organizations paralyzed by government interference. The Women's Legal Research and Services Center, China's leading women's legal rights organization, was abruptly deregistered by Beijing University, leaving it in legal limbo. And Wan Yanhai, one of China's most prominent HIV/AIDS activists, went into self-exile in the United States last weekend, stating sensibly enough, "It was no fun waiting to be attacked by government agencies all the time."

As part of a continuing attack on rights lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei joined the growing ranks of lawyers stripped of their licenses for daring to take on "sensitive" cases, further emasculating China's fledgling "rights protection" movement. And Gao Zhisheng, another courageous activist who chose to take the government at its word and tried to make use of the legal system to redress common grievances, has been disappeared -- for a second time.

But the problem isn't just China -- it's also the way the talks are structured. The dialogue process lacks meaningful benchmarks for progress, or consequences for failing to improve the situation. The Chinese government doesn't send representatives with appropriate authority or experience to participate meaningfully in the dialogues, neither does it come with any concrete plans for reform. Chinese officials often spend their visit just trying to run out the clock.


Given how ineffective the dialogues have been -- and how ineffective similar talks held by other countries with China have also been -- they also create a risk of excluding other potentially more fruitful avenues for human rights discussion, such as having cabinet members raise an issue or case, or having senior government officials speak publicly and in more detail about those discussions. The current talks may also be used as an excuse for sidelining human rights from important talks that we know the Chinese government does care about, such as the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

However, assuming that the dialogues will continue and assuming that the Chinese government will continue to filibuster and avoid real issues, how should the Obama administration use the sessions to its best advantage in bringing about real improvements for the Chinese people?

First, the administration should visibly and publicly commit to raising human rights issues outside the dialogue. I can already hear the Obama administration's rebuttal: "We regularly raise human rights issues at the highest levels, and in frank terms." But if the private language matches the public rhetoric, it's hardly the kind of precise, concrete questioning the Chinese government needs to hear. We need to hear agencies other than the State Department talk to their Chinese counterparts about human rights issues. For example, the agencies sponsoring rule-of-law projects in China should speak out publicly about China's practice of disbarring lawyers, which makes a mockery of these rule of law initiatives.

If the administration wants to claim a "whole of government" approach to promoting human rights in China, diverse officials and agencies must better coordinate their outreach. In July 2009, the Commerce Department and the U.S. trade representative (USTR) publicly opposed the Chinese government's proposal to mandate filtering software on all personal computers. The Commerce Department and the USTR described the software not only as a barrier to trade, but also as a threat to the right to expression. Such assessments should be a regular feature of U.S. diplomacy with China.

Second, the administration must do a better job outside these talks of not undermining its stated commitment to human rights. We're glad not to have heard anything akin to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's February 2009 comments that human rights "can't interfere" in the bilateral relationship, but we continue to hear too many public comments from U.S. officials about the United States and China "agreeing to disagree" on human rights. Comments like this make it easy for the Chinese government to choose the rhetoric that it prefers, and, after all, if the administration does go into these exercises with no expectation of rapprochement, why have a dialogue at all?

Finally, the United States can -- and definitely should -- do a better job of standing publicly on key human rights issues with other like-minded countries. There have been a few significant moments of solidarity, particularly the image of a few dozen staff members from rights-supporting embassies in Beijing standing on courthouse steps awaiting verdicts handed down to prominent government critics.

Too often the United States and the dozen other countries that conduct human rights dialogues with the Chinese government opt not to act together, citing the Chinese government's intense dislike of being "ganged up on" by the West. But these governments, which often express virtually identical views on identical topics to the Chinese government in private, need to stand together in public, if for no other reason than to show the stark differences between their systems and Beijing's. Human rights standards are universal, and sometimes solidarity -- and diplomacy -- needs to be, too.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES: The Beijing courthouse where leading Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was sentenced in Dec. to 11 years in jail on subversion charges.


Lula's Tehran Misadventure

In the last days of his tenure, the Brazilian president is reaching for his crowning foreign-policy glory. Will it go horribly, horribly wrong?

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva heads to Tehran this week, a sort of victory lap for what he hopes will be a monumental piece of foreign policy: bringing Iran's leadership to the nuclear negotiating table. Last week, Tehran agreed "in principle" to Brazil and Turkey's offer to facilitate talks on an agreement proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last October. Should that initiative succeed, it will surely be remembered as Lula's crowning achievement.

But many are beginning to wonder if Lula can truly be the darling of the West while also wooing the East. Lula's administration has pitched the talks to Iran not as a way to come clean but as a way to prove that it is hiding nothing with its peaceful nuclear program -- and the United States and Europe are understandably skeptical. Back home, questions have arisen about the Brazilian leader's motivation for injecting himself and his country in such a daring initiative in the first place. It's certainly not about domestic politics; if anything, cozying up to Iran is losing Lula points at home. As his presidential term comes to an end, Lula's move might be more about building a legacy on the world stage than much of anything else. And it may well backfire.

Given Brazil's recent rise as a regional and a global player, it might come as a surprise that foreign policy and Iran policy in particular have been a source of criticism rather than praise for Lula's government back at home. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Brasilia last November was greeted with street protests and strong condemnation by the media and Lula's political opponents. José Serra, then São Paulo's governor and now a leading presidential candidate, criticized the president for embracing a dictator reminiscent of the military regime Lula and Serra -- themselves victims of political persecution -- fought to dislodge from power a quarter-century ago.

Subsequent Brazilian visits to Tehran had a similar effect. The image of a smiling Brazilian minister of commerce offering the national soccer team's revered yellow jersey to Ahmadinejad in Tehran last month caused discomfort even among Lula's allies. Clovis Rossi, a columnist and early supporter of Lula's foreign policy, wrote that the Brazilian soccer jersey is now "covered with blood" from Iranian dissidents killed by the Islamic government. A member of Lula's own Workers' Party spoke to me privately of his apprehension about Brazil's rapprochement with the Iranian regime, which he sees as a foreign-policy "exaggeration."

Leading names of Brazil's foreign-policy community have offered equally harsh assessments. In an interview with Brazil's UOL news, veteran diplomat Rubens Ricupero, a historian and former ambassador to Washington, described Brazil's self-initiated overture to Iran as symptomatic of a foreign policy driven by "the constant search for the spotlight."

Lula, however, remains undaunted by criticism, which he views as uninformed and undeserved attacks from those too blind to see that he is shepherding Brazil's emergence as a global power. On April 27, he dispatched Foreign Minister Celso Amorim to Tehran to prepare for his own visit on May 15. Before meeting with his Iranian counterparts, Amorim restated Brazil's opposition to a new round of sanctions sponsored by the U.N. Security Council, of which Brazil is a non permanent member.

"Call us naive, but I think those who believe in everything the U.S. intelligence service says are much more naive. Look at the case of Iraq," Amorim said in an interview with the AFP. After meeting Ahmadinejad, Brazil's foreign minister urged Tehran to come clean with the IAEA and prove to the world what it has apparently demonstrated to Brazil: that its nuclear program is strictly peaceful and consistent with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iran might have liked that rhetoric, but it's far from clear that Tehran will do much more to deliver on its "in principle" agreement for talks. The country has rejected similar deals in the recent past after welcoming them "in principle." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed Brazil and Turkey's efforts, accusing Tehran of stalling and trying to gain time instead of addressing the central question about the nature of its nuclear program at the IAEA.

Against this backdrop, Lula's visit to Iran at the end of this week has become a highly risky venture. The rewards of a successful trip would be great. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders would shower praise on Lula's peacemaking abilities. Obama in particular might note that Brazil's actions since the late 1980s, when it renounced nuclear weapons, have made the country a leader in the fight against nuclear proliferation. Surely, Lula's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize would not be far behind.

It is at least equally likely, however, that Lula's trip to Tehran will be a flop after producing a few hopeful headlines. In this scenario, Brazil's Persian aspirations will be undone by the realities of Iranian politics, of which Brazilians have limited knowledge or understanding. Lula will be accused of lending his hard-earned reputation, and Brazil's good name, to undoing the Islamic Republic's growing international isolation, as it continues to resist calls to comply with its NPT obligations. He will be remembered as the Brazilian president who allowed well-deserved praise to go to his head -- inspiring him to gamble his country's interests and prestige on an ill-fated venture. Both Lula and his country would be diminished by the episode.

U.S. and European officials have already signaled to their Brazilian counterparts that a Lula visit to Tehran that fails to produce results could cause major damage to Brazil's relations with its traditional allies. Fearful of this outcome, which he sees as inevitable, former Foreign Minister Luis Felipe Lampreia warned in an op-ed for O Globo that the upcoming visit "will cause incalculable material and political losses" and could raise suspicions about Brazil's own nuclear program -- all in pursuit of a "completely unnecessary" initiative. Added Lampreia, "It is like the person who crosses the street on purpose to step on a banana peel on the opposite sidewalk." Lula is about to test out the wisdom of that approach.