President Obama refused to raise human rights issues during his meeting Friday with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, despite urging from a bipartisan group of lawmakers and assurances from the White House that Obama "raises our commitment to human rights" on all his trips.
“Saudi Arabia's human rights record is abysmal at best and its mistreatment of women is systemic, unthinkable and cruel," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who -- along with Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., -- wrote a letter to Obama urging him to pressure Saudi Arabia about human rights abuses that take place in the country. "When President Obama meets with King Abdullah, he must speak out against intolerance and urge specific reforms to bring the country closer to the rest of the free world.”
That didn't happen. Obama did make a stop Saturday before departing Saudi Arabia to present an award to Maha al Muneef, director of a program to combat domestic violence, but they didn't want the event to receive much attention.
CBS' Major Garrett explained that the White House team only made the Muneef award ceremony public when reporters pressured them about Obama's refusal to talk about human rights with the king.
"Original [White House] plan was no press coverage of Muneef award, then [the] absurdity of heralding something invisible set in & event opened to [White House] pool," Garrett tweeted.
"The focus of the meeting was strategic and regional topics," a White House official told reporters, when explaining that Obama did not discuss human rights issues during his two-hour meeting with the king.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes demurred when asked ahead of the meeting if Obama planned to discuss the issue.
"I think the president, anywhere he goes in the world he raises our commitment to human rights, to universal values," Rhodes told reporters. "So I think that will be an issue on the agenda with the Saudis. At the same time, we have a very broad set of shared security interests, economic interests that we’ll be pursuing as well ... We have to have the ability to cooperate with them on a very broad political and security agenda as well."
Seventy House members signed the letter telling Obama not to dodge issues of religious freedom and women's rights during his trip.
“After the congressional letter to President Obama in which I — along with nearly 70 of my colleagues in the House — urged the president to raise critical human rights and religious freedom cases, I was appalled and extremely dismayed that the President of the United States once again failed to publicly address human rights, religious freedom, and democratic reform in Saudi Arabia," Franks said after Obama's trip.
It wasn't just Republicans angry with Obama. Amnesty International accused him of showing hypocrisy on human rights issues.
"The president’s silence demonstrates once again that when it comes to human rights, the U.S. holds repressive allies to a much lower standard than adversaries," Amnesty International's Sunjeev Bery said. "On Saturday, Saudi Arabian women activists will defy the government’s ban on women driving. It is the only such ban in the world. Through Amnesty International’s campaign, thousands of people in the U.S. have shown their solidarity with these brave women. Unfortunately, White House officials, including the president, will not be among them."