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Advocates Discuss US Human Rights Role

Many advocates for such freedoms recently accused Hillary Clinton of softening U.S. criticism of China's human rights record in her first visit to China as U.S. secretary of state. The issue has sparked discussion over the U.S. role in promoting human rights at a time when critics can cite American abuse of prisoners in Iraq and other facilities.

In Nepal and in other places around the world, this month demonstrators marked the 50th anniversary of the unsuccessful revolt by Tibetans against Beijing's rule.

And advocates for Tibet have accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of not being assertive enough on human rights during her recent visit to China (March 11).

But Clinton insisted the U.S is not softening its approach.

"While we may disagree on these issues, open discussions will continue to be a key part of our approach," she said. "And human rights is part of our comprehensive agenda."

Thomas Melia is the deputy executive director of Freedom House, a non-profit organization in Washington that promotes human rights and democracy.

He says U.S. diplomats must always press such concerns with other nations, even if that means abandoning other demands.

"What we want is an ongoing engagement between our government and other major governments in the world, that shows that it matters to us," said Melia.

Advocates say the 2004 scandal over the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by U.S. guards weakened America's human rights voice. They add, so have allegations of torture at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and other detention facilities.

Joe Stork specializes on the Middle East for Human Rights Watch. "We don't have much of a leg to stand on, and it's going to take a while to get back on sort of good grounds on that score," he said.

Others give credit to the U.S. government for the prosecution of those responsible for the Abu Ghraib mistreatment and to America's free press for revealing the scandal.

The next year, then-Sectary of State Condoleezza Rice urged the Egyptian government to ensure free and fair presidential elections.

But there was pushback on Egyptian streets, some activists questioning America's credibility.

In the end, there were historic elections both in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Some experts credit the Bush administration's focus on political reform and its diplomatically gentle approach.

"And that's the challenge for diplomats," said Thomas Melia of Freedom House. "To do that in a way in public that is not alienating, and to do it in private that demonstrates that we're serious about it."

Still, there are divergent viewpoints over the tone U.S. diplomats should set.

Christian Brose, the senior editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, says diplomats should present human rights reform as a wise decision, not a demand.

"Sit with them and say 'This is a priority for the United States and the American people. You are going to be better off if you begin moving in this direction,'" he said.

But others say the U.S. should say to offending nations, "If you want good relations, this is important."

"But you've got to understand that human rights is going to figure into how good these relations can be - how warm and how close and how productive these relations can be," said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch.

And there is agreement among advocates, human rights must remain an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.

"It's as much about who we are as a country, as it is about our aspirations for a better world," said Thomas Melia of Freedom House.

Melia also says the Obama administration must put its unique stamp on human rights negotiations and that Mr. Obama's historic election may be his strongest argument for the merits of a free society.