Shadow Government

What Should the U.S. Do About Sudan's Execution of Meriam Ibrahim?

The case of Meriam Ibrahim, the pregnant Sudanese woman sentenced to death for her religious beliefs, shocks the conscience like few other cases. What the tyranny of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is prepared to do to her boggles the mind. Ibrahim is to have her baby, be lashed 100 times, nurse her child for a period of time, and then be executed. It is a scenario that sounds like the fiercest opponents of radical Islamists made it up. But it isn't a fiction -- it is all too real. In the name of Islam, the "gang of ghouls" in Khartoum (to borrow from Churchill) is going to torture and kill a new mother because it is offended by her religious beliefs.

Regimes over the centuries have visited cruelties upon their victims without regard for the dictates of natural law or Enlightenment principles. During the 20th century, however, universal norms were enunciated via international conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- backed up by the Pax Americana -- to provide some mitigation. Humane government has advanced greatly and government brutality has been checked significantly.

But something has been happening over the last 30 years that poses a direct challenge to the positive trajectory of the liberal world order and its defenders. During the last several decades we have witnessed the rise of regimes of armed groups that claim a foundation in Islam to establish an order characterized by cruelty. They hijack one of the world's major religions to practice a form of governance that uses brutality to enforce control and intimidation, particularly of women. A regime that is willing to torture and execute a woman recently delivered of her child simply because she holds religious views different from the regime's dictates is truly barbaric. And it is a direct challenge to all who have advanced civilization and serve as its guardians, whether they do their work unilaterally or via multilateral forums such as the United Nations.

Bashir's government in Sudan is the latest example; its current persecution of Ibrahim and her American husband and unborn child is a calculated and direct threat to the role the United States has been playing in the world. We should make no mistake about why Khartoum has chosen this time and circumstance to shock the world. The regime is bitter at the United States' role in the loss of what is now South Sudan. The persecution of Ibrahim is a lashing out at the world that the United States has helped to produce. It is a challenge the United States and the West cannot afford to tolerate.

We could speculate that the Obama administration's reluctance to more forcefully rebuke heinous acts like this have allowed this kind of barbarity to survive and grow, but that is an argument for another day. Besides, the motivation of the regime is less important than the facts on the ground. And right now there is the undisputed fact that Bashir's regime, which after decades of brutality has recently become even more extreme, is assaulting civilization and its protectors just as the mullah-led regime in Iran is doing with its persecution of Pastor Saeed Abedini, and Boko Haram is doing with the kidnapping and forced conversion of Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria.

The president -- and the West generally -- is facing an intentional challenge. So far, the Obama administration has done too little diplomatically while leaving it to NGOs like the American Center for Law and Justice and Amnesty International to do the heavy lifting. A cause like Ibrahim's should be trumpeted regularly; Obama should make it his cause by noting the nationality of her husband and child. He should excoriate the persecutors in clear and forceful terms. But even more than that, the president should affirm that those who commit these atrocities will never have the friendship of the United States. They might hold seats at the U.N. and on its Human Rights Council, but they cannot be trusted to keep faith with the Declaration's principles, and that we will seek to thwart them until they reform. This stance would embolden our staunchest allies and shame into action our reluctant allies.

There is no room in the world for people who torture and kill women. We have come a long way toward stamping out the Dark Age brutality that was once the hallmark of state power, but that work is still far from done. The case of Meriam Ibrahim is exactly the kind of injustice that the Obama administration should stand against and prove that it is as committed as ever to that mission.

AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

After Months of Crackdowns, Is the U.S. Finally Going to Sanction Venezuela?

As the wave of street protests in Venezuela creeps towards its fourth month, the Obama administration has finally begun to talk about sanctioning those who violate the human rights of legitimate street protestors. That they are now doing so can be attributed to pressure from a restive, bipartisan coalition in Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, unconvinced of the merits of the administration's passive policy to date, recently passed a measure urging the administration to act. And on Wednesday, the House is scheduled to vote on a similar measure.

Last week in Mexico, Secretary of State John Kerry made the strongest statements yet on the ongoing clashes between student protestors, and Venezuelan security forces and government-armed gangs that have roiled the country since February. Referring to the government's ruse of a "dialogue" with one segment of the opposition while it jailed other opposition leaders and unleashed thugs against protestors, Kerry said, "regrettably there has just been a total failure by the government of Venezuela" to act in good faith. "What is important for the Venezuelan government now is to honor the dialogue process, and to restore the civil liberties of opposition leaders who have been unjustly imprisoned."

He added, "The power is in the hands of the government, and the government has to exercise that power in a responsible way in order to make the choices to create stability and a way forward in Venezuela."

But even as the administration has, at last, correctly diagnosed the problem, it still apparently cannot come to terms about what to do about it. "Our hope is that sanctions will not be necessary," Kerry said. Instead, the administration is hoping that "President Maduro and others will make the decisions that will make it unnecessary for them to be implemented. But all options remain on the table at this time with the hopes that we can move the process forward."

Not exactly telegraphing conviction.

By its own admission, the administration believes that if it acts unilaterally in Venezuela, it would "bilateralize" the conflict; that is, it would give the Venezuelan government a new drum to bang in its ongoing cacophony of anti-American rhetoric, thus diverting attention away from the protestors' grievances. That, however, is giving credence to a problem that doesn't exist. The view that sanctioning human rights observers will somehow make Venezuelans think any less of skyrocketing inflation, rampant street crime, and shortages of everything from electricity to basic consumer goods is as divorced from reality as is the Venezuelan government's belief it can beat its people into continued submission. 

First, the administration tried to respond to the crisis through multilateral diplomacy -- that failed when regional governments headed for the tall grass rather than adopt meaningful action. 

Next, it relied on the government stage-managed "dialogue" with members of what has been described as the "moderate" opposition. Those talks are now moribund after the opposition decided it could no longer pretend the government was taking its grievances seriously.

As the saying goes, when you exhaust all your other options, you may as well do the right thing. The crisis in Venezuela has churned for four months now because the government hasn't had to face any costs for its truculent behavior. The Obama administration has an opportunity to change that equation through the principled application of sanctions against behavior no one who wants what is best for the Americas should accept. 

That is the issue in Venezuela today; not what the United States did or didn't do in Latin America over the last 100 years. President Obama is fond of saying that the origin of many of the region's controversies occurred before he was born, and that is true. But it puts him in a perfect position to act devoid of the historical baggage he ostensibly wants to shed -- it doesn't relieve him of the burden to act.

Of course, there will always be those perpetually aggrieved by the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America. But to give them veto power over what the United States should do to uphold principles we all share in the Americas is to perpetuate the problems that is in all our peoples' interests to resolve.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images