White House

Bush astounds activists, supports human rights

President Bush addresses the U.N. General Assembly.
President Bush addresses the U.N. General Assembly. Charles Dharapak / AP

UNITED NATIONS — President Bush implored the United Nations on Tuesday to recommit itself to restoring human decency by liberating oppressed people and ending famine and disease.

Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, the president called for renewed efforts to enforce the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a striking point of emphasis for a leader who's widely accused of violating human rights in waging war against terrorism.

Bush didn't mention the U.S. prisons in Afghanistan or at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. practice of holding detainees for years without legal charges or access to lawyers, or the CIA's "rendition" kidnappings of suspects abroad, all issues of concern to human rights activists around the world.

"At first read, it's little more than an exercise in hypocrisy. His words about human rights ring hollow because his credibility is nonexistent," said Curt Goering, the deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. "The gap between the rhetoric and the actual record is stunning. I can't help but believe many people in the audience were thinking, 'What was this man thinking?' "

Still, some groups, such as the bipartisan One: The Campaign to Make Poverty History, praised Bush for calling for a recommitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The president spoke of every civilized nation's "responsibility to stand up for the people suffering under dictatorship." He said the United States was doing its part by imposing new sanctions against the military dictatorship in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

"Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear," Bush said. "Basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship are severely restricted. Ethnic minorities are persecuted."

The president also had sharp words for Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Syria, Zimbabwe and Sudan for having "brutal regimes" that "deny their people the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration" of Human Rights. He omitted any reference to repressive regimes allied with his war on terrorism, including Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China.

He noted that the long "cruel" rule of a gravely ill Fidel Castro in Cuba "is nearing its end."

"The Cuban people are ready for their freedom," Bush said. "And as that nation enters a period of transition, the United Nations must insist on free speech, free assembly and, ultimately, free and competitive elections."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sat in the U.N. chamber, often checking his watch, during Bush's remarks. Cuban officials walked out during Bush's 20-minute speech.

He took the United Nations to task, saying it needs to be overhauled in order to be credible. He accused the Security Council of ignoring human rights violations by Venezuela, North Korea and Iran while constantly criticizing Israel.

He employed a softer tone from previous U.N. appearances, however. He embraced the United Nations as useful, in contrast to his earlier attitude that the body was — as he once said — "an international debating society."

But he brushed past the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and didn't mention Iran's alleged nuclear threat, the biggest global flash points today.

Some human rights activists credited Bush for taking action against Myanmar's military government, but gave him low marks overall when it comes to standing up for human rights.

"I believe the president should be championing human rights at the U.N., but he's lost his authority and credibility as a world leader because of his policies on rendition and Guantanamo," said Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "His remarks would be more effective if the U.S. was practicing what it's preaching."

Linda Jamison, who analyzes the U.N. for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center in Washington, said Bush's speech offered little in terms of outreach or specifics.

"He gave us U.N. 101 if it were a college course," Jamison said. "We need U.S.-U.N. 201. He skimmed it."

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