There was huge optimism within the human rights community when President Obama took office. Among human rights activists, there was sheer and utter contempt for George W. Bush and his challenge to conventional wisdom on everything ranging from transformative diplomacy to posture toward the Palestinian Authority to the use of force to counter terrorism. Even today, Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, “likes” a group on her Facebook page entitled “Not Having George Bush as President (by LeftAction.com).”
The former head of Norway’s Peace Prize Committee has acknowledged the group bestowed its award on Obama in 2009 in order to bolster him against those opposed to his philosophy, never mind that Obama was all promise at that point and little action. He now regrets it.
Indeed, one of the ironies of the Obama administration, and one for which there has been very little introspection within the human rights community, is how corrosive Obama’s time in power has been for global human rights. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Thomas Malinowski, who joined the State Department out of Human Rights Watch, may once have given Obama human rights pedigree, but they both now effectively provide cover to an administration which has overseen more avoidable human tragedy than any other for decades. Libya has become a problem from hell of Power’s own making, and Syria has driven the number of worldwide displaced to levels unseen since World War II. Meanwhile, Obama and Kerry have turned their backs to dissidents from Havana to Tehran and Moscow to Beijing, and many countries in between.
The Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) has made headlines for its enslavement and rape of women and girls, its grotesque execution of men and boys, and the indoctrination of a new generation of children. The Obama administration did little to prevent the Islamic State’s rise (and, indeed, its policy decisions facilitated it) and the White House seems only to want to address the morass in Syria and Iraq when the press focuses attention on it. As soon as the cameras move on, the Islamic State is largely forgotten.
In this, it is far from unique. The same abuses perpetrated by the Islamic State have been ongoing for decades in North Korea. Indeed, North Korea is the original “problem from Hell.” At best, administrations pay lip service to North Korean abuses and at worst they ignore them.
For years, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), has sought to change this. They have published a number of reports on the North Korean gulag, among other topics. Now, HNRK has launched a new website, NKHiddenGulag.org, which aims to teach about perhaps the most sustained and egregious human rights tragedy since the Holocaust.
There is no shortage of blame to go around with regard to inaction and inattention to the human rights situation in North Korea. Certainly, the Clinton and Bush administrations did little, and the only reason the Obama team deserves any opprobrium is because of its pretense. Nor is it clear that there will be any improvement on the horizon. The Republican debates have, due to the presence of Donald Trump, been largely a farce, a tragedy compounded by the fact that the Republican field has by far the most talent and intellectual and philosophical diversity in decades. The Democratic field is also rich and experienced, even if not as diverse.
Any candidate — and certainly their campaign advisors — should review NKHiddenGulag.org. At the very least, it should remind of the types of problems that take root and exist in the absence of American leadership, and it also provides a stark remind of the nature of regimes the United States faces, not only in Northeast Asia but, with the Islamic State, also in the Middle East. The difference between soundbites and an understanding of the mechanisms of state would be to draft a policy to address the gulags. Is there a magic formula? Likely not. Is ending such egregious abuses of life and liberty a U.S. interest? It would actually be interesting to hear those seeking to be the leader of the free world opine on that question. Was striking a nuclear deal and providing over a billion dollars in aid to North Korea the right way to go? Again, candidates might disagree. Perhaps there would be more debate about whether human rights should ever be left off the table as President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did with Pyongyang, and Obama and Kerry did with Tehran. There may not be easy answers to such questions, but the existence of such gulags in the 21st century is a subject that should lead all politicians and human rights activists worth their salt to put partisanship aside.