Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s record on human rights came under harsh criticism in Geneva, Switzerland, last week as political dissidents and pro-democracy activists gathered at a conference ahead of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s annual session.
Clinton has been praised for her role in negotiating U.S. asylum for Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, and she received the Lantos Foundation Human Rights award for her proclamations on women’s rights and her “pioneering work on Internet freedom.”
However, activists at the Geneva Summit on Human Rights and Democracy, hosted last week by United Nations watchdog group UN Watch, gave a very different assessment of the former secretary of state, telling the Washington Free Beacon that she was silent and passive on some of the most pressing human rights issues during her tenure at the State Department.
Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of an American Christian pastor who has been imprisoned in Iran since the summer of 2012, said the State Department under Clinton all but ignored her husband’s case, and did not take an active role until Secretary of State John Kerry took over last year.
“For Hillary Clinton to have been completely silent, and not have done anything when my husband was taken, and knowing … it was strictly on a human rights issue, really bothered me because I expected otherwise from my government,” Abedini said.
She said she first contacted the State Department in August 2012, days after her husband Saeed Abedini was detained in Tehran. The Christian pastor, who was in Iran to help build an orphanage, was later sentenced to eight years in prison on religion-related charges.
“It was just very cold,” Abedini said about her initial call to the State Department. “[One official] said ‘We’re not Hollywood—we can’t just fly in there and save people.’”
She said Clinton and State Department officials brushed off phone calls and letters from her attorneys and members of Congress for months.
“We received nothing, no movement, no comments, nothing until March , and Kerry was the first to say something,” Abedini said.
“From the first phone call I expected movement,” she added. “I didn’t expect nothing. Somewhere along the line I felt like the message I was getting from them was, ‘We don’t want to ruffle feathers [with Iran], we want to focus on the nuclear [issue].’”
A senior State Department official defended Clinton’s record, saying agency officials spoke out in support of Saeed Abedini as soon as his wife asked them to do so.
“Once the family asked the U.S. government to speak publicly on the case, we publicly noted our concern about Mr. Abedini’s welfare, called on Iran to respect its own laws and provide him access to an attorney, requested consular access on behalf of Swiss officials, and called for his immediate release,” the official said.
“The Swiss government, in its role as our protecting power, has continued to raise these cases with Iran on our behalf, as have other countries whom we have asked to press Iran to cooperate on these cases.”
The State Department issued its first public statement on Abedini’s imprisonment on Jan. 27, 2013, six months after he was first detained. Clinton officially stepped down as secretary of state on Feb. 1, 2013.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf noted the agency’s actions on Iranian human rights issues under Clinton, including its lobbying for UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Iran’s human rights abuses.
She added that 19 individuals and 15 entities in Iran were sanctioned by Clinton’s State Department for their role in human rights violations.
“From North Korea to Syria, and across the globe, Secretary Clinton spoke up and stood up for the universal rights the United States stands up for everywhere: the freedom for people to have a say in their future, to make their voices heard, and to live their lives free from fear,” Harf said.
North Korean and Syrian activists in Geneva were less taken with Clinton’s performance.
Ahn Myong-Chol, a North Korean (DPRK) dissident whose descriptions of the country’s prison camps played a major role in this month’s harrowing UN report on the regime’s human rights abuses, said he “really preferred John Kerry compared to Hillary Clinton” at the State Department.
While Ahn said he believed Clinton would get “a lot of people’s votes [if she runs for president in 2016] because she could be the very first female president of the United States,” he added that he disliked “Hillary Clinton’s passive actions when it comes to the DPRK.”
Clinton’s early efforts at outreach with North Korea were rebuffed by the authoritarian regime and the State Department made no progress on dismantling the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program under Clinton’s leadership.
Moayad Iskafe, a Syrian journalist and opposition activist who helped smuggle reporters into the country after civil war broke out in 2011, said he was initially optimistic about Clinton’s position on Syria.
“She said Bashar Assad [should] go,” Iskafe said. “But after that I did not hear [her] voice. After that, she said we can’t do anything for Syria … she said we will not take our army to Syria … we will do nothing.”
Ahn and Iskafe acknowledged that their concerns about Clinton were related to a larger criticism of the Obama administration’s policies she was carrying out.
“For the Bush administration, they used to send strong messages with strong gestures,” Ahn said through a translator. “The Obama administration only puts verbal pressure.”
The North Korean dissident, a former prison camp guard, criticized the administration for its response to North Korea’s imprisonment of American missionary Kenneth Bae.
“The way the U.S. reacts to this incident looks very passive,” Ahn said.
Harf said Clinton’s State Department sponsored and lobbied for resolutions condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses at the United Nations, and said Clinton played a major role in deploying Bill Clinton to North Korea to obtain the release of imprisoned U.S. journalists in 2009.
While Iskafe said he was disappointed the Obama administration has not done more to help the Syrian opposition, he said he had little faith that any other U.S. president would have acted differently under the current circumstances.
“If George Bush [were] the president now, maybe he’d do nothing,” Iskafe said. “There is government—they know what they do, they know what they want to do. It’s not personal.”
“Syrian people are not [Obama’s] people,” he added. “And this is our luck, it is our luck to be Syrian.”