WASHINGTON — A Republican lawmaker lashed out at US human rights activists Wednesday, accusing them of going soft on President Barack Obama to curry favor with his social circle.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made the stinging criticism at a hearing on Myanmar where a leader of Human Rights Watch backed administration efforts to engage the junta.
Ros-Lehtinen’s most known interaction with the president is probably that she hung up on him, twice, thinking that his calling her was a prank from a South Florida radio station.
“Ileana, I cannot believe you hung up on the President-Elect,” Obama’s then-soon-to-be chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said.
The same lawmaker remonstrated human rights groups for being “soft” on Obama during a hearing Wednesday.
“It’s gotten to the point where human rights organizations are mouthing the same platitudes” as government officials, said Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American and outspoken critic of undemocratic regimes.
“I believe many human rights organizations have lost their voice — they are no longer standing up for the people who are oppressed, who are murdered, who are raped,” she said.
“It’s so easy to be cooperative in this town. Everybody wants to be invited to White House parties,” she said.
“I hope you continue to get invited to every briefing and party and when you go to those parties, don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” she said, a reference to cult leader Jim Jones who led more than 900 followers to drink poison in a group suicide in 1978.
Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, defended himself and said he has “severely criticized” the Obama administration over China and Sudan.
On China, Malinowski said human rights “has fallen by the wayside” as the Obama administration seeks broader relations with the emerging economy.
“I don’t think I’ve shied away or my colleagues in the human rights community have shied away. I also think they’re doing some things right,” he said.
But Malinowski said Obama’s new policy of opening dialogue with Myanmar while maintaining economic sanctions on the military regime was “appropriately balanced.”
“I’m quite capable of changing my mind if the evidence leads me in that direction, even if I don’t get invited somewhere,” he said.
It was the latest public drubbing of New York-based Human Rights Watch, founded in 1978 as Helsinki Watch with a mission to name and shame abusive governments.
The group’s former chairman, Robert Bernstein, wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times on Tuesday accusing Human Rights Watch of relentlessly attacking Israel while playing down violations by Arab states.