President Obama concluded visits with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and King Salman of Saudi Arabia with predictable news media queries about whether he had raised specific human-rights cases with his hosts.
The president spoke in general terms about human-rights issues when in India and acknowledged he had not raised specific cases in either country, including that of the Saudi blogger who had received a sentence of 1,000 canings for “insulting” Islam.
The president said he would raise human-rights cases with Saudi and Indian authorities on other occasions. Leaving aside the question of whether the commemoration of the death of a monarch is an appropriate time to raise such issues, the president’s actions, or non-actions, predictably raised the question once again of how effective it is for an American leader to raise specific human-rights cases with leaders of other nations.
When I served in Congress, I found that Secretary of State George Shultz was very effective in raising the cases of individual Soviet Jews, including relatives of my constituents, who had suffered decades of persecution and wanted to immigrate to America. The secretary told me he kept a list of such “refusenik” cases in his pocket and never let a meeting with a Soviet official go by without raising an individual case. Admittedly, this was at a time of warming U.S.-Soviet relations in the Reagan-Gorbachev era.
When I served as U.S. ambassador-at-large on modern slavery, I decided, with the support of President George W. Bush, to take the same approach. While the results were not always fruitful, they were fruitful enough to justify my belief in this tactic.
Two experiences on a trip I made, involving visits to India and Saudi Arabia brought out contrasting results. In India, a deputy minister of labor reluctantly agreed to meet me, then refused to discuss the specific case of a labor site involving hundreds of slaves I had personally observed in Southern India. He went on to argue that India had no modern slavery problem — despite hundreds of Indian nongovernmental organizations who protested that bonded labor and sex slavery involved millions of Indians.
A striking contrast was my visit with Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia later on the same trip. Then-Saudi King Abdullah had agreed to see me but he had been called away to a conference. In his place, Crown Prince Salman (now the King) met with me.
I had decided I would give the details of a specific case to illustrate the slavery challenge in Saudi Arabia and ask for action. That morning, I had met at a local Starbucks in Riyadh with an Indonesian maid and her Palestinian lawyer. The maid’s masters had inflicted cigarette burns over most of her body before they brought the maid into a hospital the way we would bring a television set for repairs into a local appliance store. A bold Filipino nurse brought the case to the attention of the authorities, but the result was no punishment for the male master, 35 lashes for the female master and, the greatest punishment, 79 lashes for the maid for allegedly making contradictory statements.
I laid out the papers involving the maid’s suffering and prospective punishment. The Crown Prince stated that while not familiar with the specific case, he would look into the matter. The prince did show a familiarity with the lack of progress in prosecuting slavery in the kingdom since it had been outlawed in the early 1970s.
More needed to be done, he said, and asked for suggestions. I was happy to oblige and we ended the meeting with the prince, a Muslim, and myself, a Jew, exchanging the approaches from the Quran and the Torah, respectively, on slavery. At the end of the meeting, I expressed appreciation for our candid discussion, including the case of the Indonesian maid. “Of course,” the Crown Prince said, “that is what friends and allies are for.”
Several weeks later, I learned that the punishment of the Indonesian maid was reversed and she was free to return to Indonesia.
What lessons can one learn from these experiences? Yes, Indian government officials are sensitive about criticism from other democratic nations. Yes, the new king of Saudi Arabia is a very sophisticated man who understands American concern for human rights. Yes, Saudi Arabia and India then had great challenges on slavery — and still do. While some progress has been made in both countries, it has been halting and fitful, as reflected in the terrible ratings both have received in the annual State Department reports on slavery, which is euphemistically referred to as “human trafficking.” But, most important, I learned that if an alliance and friendship is strong, bringing up individual cases by ambassadors and, obviously, even more so by presidents, can bring results.
Now that relations with India are warming, the president might even get results on individual cases from the new Indian Prime Minister comparable to what he might get from the new Saudi King. Most allies expect American leaders to make such entreaties, knowing our concern about human rights. And involvement of high officials in individual cases can lead to their involvement in broader human-rights issues.
Besides, as nongovernmental groups in all but totalitarian countries told me, “If you don’t raise such cases, who will?” It is something American officials, including presidents, should remember.
Former U.S. Rep. John R. Miller served in Congress from 1984 to 1992 representing Washington’s 1st Congressional Distrct and was U.S. ambassador-at-large on modern slavery from 2002 to 2006.