World leaders, including President Barack Obama, are jostling for the chance to celebrate Nelson Mandela this week, which would surely make Mandela smile. He had a mischievous sense of humor, and he knew better than anybody that the U.S. and other countries now embracing him had spurned him when he could have actually used the help.
In the deluge of coverage since Mandela died, there has been surprisingly little reflection on the lessons for ourselves, and there is a whiff of hypocrisy about the adulation for Mandela even as we sell weapons to repressive regimes around the world.
We needn’t just look backward: Yes, President Ronald Reagan or Dick Cheney, as a member of Congress in the ’80s, didn’t honor Mandela when it would have helped him, but it’s more relevant today that Obama isn’t speaking up adequately on behalf of political prisoners.
If we Americans want to uphold the spirit of Mandela, then let’s advocate for political prisoners in China, Cuba, Syria and Iran and also in allied countries such as Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Bahrain. And we should more forcefully protest Israeli settlements in the West Bank, for Mandela himself said: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Obama gave a characteristically eloquent eulogy for Mandela, but he neglected the obvious point for ourselves: We should try to stand on the right side of history.
The Obama administration didn’t even blush when, on the day Mandela died, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Bahrain — an undemocratic minority regime that violently oppresses its majority.
Hagel consorted with Bahrain’s king without speaking up forcefully and publicly about imprisoned human rights activists like Nabeel Rajab, the globally respected president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Or about Zainab al-Khawaja, a U.S.-educated woman who quoted Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mandela — and who is now in prison for her advocacy of human rights. Granted, the U.S. has important security interests, but do we really need to marginalize those carrying on Mandela’s fight?
“Future elected presidents and prime ministers are sitting in jails of governments the U.S. is supporting with weapons,” notes Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. “One day, Nabeel Rajab or Zainab al-Khawaja could be part of a Bahrain government that the U.S. will need to do business with. If it’s to avoid the mistakes it made with Mandela, it should start advocating properly for their release.”
In the eulogy, Obama said of Mandela, “He changed laws, but also hearts.” So let’s indeed have a change of heart and offer a tribute not just in words but also in firmer support for other advocates of peaceful democratic change. Consider Ethiopia, where the U.S. has enormous clout that it hasn’t adequately used on behalf of political prisoners like Eskinder Nega, a journalist serving an 18-year sentence for terrorism.
Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, says that his candidate for Mandela of today is Liu Xiaobo, the great Chinese writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for advocating democracy and human rights. When China is free and democratic, world leaders will likely issue moving tributes to Liu’s moral vision, but he could use their words today.
One of the lessons of Mandela’s life is that global pressure does matter. When Mandela was put on trial in 1963 and 1964, the South African government wanted to execute him. But because of an international outcry, he was given life imprisonment instead.
Finally, to further honor Mandela’s legacy, Obama could make a stronger push to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Think of the gratuitous cruelty toward Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel, a Guantanamo inmate from Yemen who wrote in The Times of what happened when he refused food:
“I was sick in the prison hospital and refused to be fed. A team from the ERF (Extreme Reaction Force), a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary.”
Mr. President, you can’t blame John Boehner for that.
Granted, it’s easy for those of us outside of government to advocate for human rights, while it’s infinitely more difficult for officials in power to balance human rights against other priorities. Some political leaders reading this will undoubtedly feel that I’m being simplistic and unfair, eliding the realpolitik pressures to work with flawed allies. They should remember that a generation ago, their predecessors were citing the same reasons to keep quiet about Nelson Mandela.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.