When Vladimir Putin first ascended to the Russian presidency fourteen years ago, Russian citizens saw an immediate rise in attacks on their human rights, including their right to free speech, religion, and assembly. Conditions have deteriorated since then. Last spring, Human Rights Watch issued a report stating that “the Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.”
But during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, western commentators and companies have lugged right past the Russian government’s many and varied violations of human rights to focus almost exclusively on its treatment of homosexuals, and in particular a law passed last summer outlawing homosexual propaganda aimed at children.
The Russian government’s mistreatment of homosexuals has become the Olympic cause célébre, at least in the West. Ahead of the games, Telecom giant AT&T issued a statement condemning the law and underlining the company’s “long and proud history of support for the LGBT community.”
Numerous other companies, including Chobani Greek yogurt, DeVry University, Lush Cosmetics, and American Apparel made similar protests against the law and in support of gays in Russia and around the world. Other displays of solidarity included an NBC commentator appearing on air in drag and a General Motors ad entitled “New Love,” which appeared during the opening ceremonies and featured a same-sex marriage.
Meanwhile, Google.com’s homepage doodle celebrated the start of the games with illustrations of various winter Olympic sports on top of the rainbow colored flag and a quote from the Olympic charter condemning discrimination in sports.
Western companies haven’t been alone in highlighting gays at the games. The Obama administration has also placed gays and gay rights at the top of its persecution pecking order.
In a pre-Olympic trip to Russia in September 2013, Obama met with Russian gay rights activists. He also cancelled a meeting with Putin, a move that was in part motivated by his opposition to the anti-gay propaganda law.
Ahead of the Olympics, Obama said, “Nobody’s more offended than me about some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia.” Obama’s decision not to attend the Olympics — or to have the first lady or vice president attend in his place — was widely interpreted as a protest against Russia’s treatment of homosexuals. Instead of attending himself, Obama selected three gay athletes to be part of the ten-member U.S. delegation to attend the opening and closing ceremonies.
Unfortunately, Obama’s focus on gay rights stands out even more in contrast to his relative silence on other human rights issues. Indeed, under Obama, the United States has abdicated its traditional role as a champion of human rights, and in particular religious freedom.
As an indication of where religious freedom ranks among Obama’s foreign policy priorities, Obama left the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom unfilled for well over a year at the beginning of his first term. And since his eventual appointee, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, resigned last October, Obama has not replaced her — in fact, he hasn’t even nominated anyone yet.
When the Ugandan parliament recently passed a law criminalizing homosexuality, Obama publicly condemned it. Over the weekend, Obama said that his administration has contacted Uganda’s president personally to urge him to reconsider the bill. He also said that if the bill becomes law, it would “complicate” relations between the two countries.
Meanwhile, when Islamic militants allegedly massacred more than one hundred Christian villagers in northeast Nigeria over the weekend, it prompted only silence from Obama.
In his Uganda statement, Obama lamented the rise in violence targeting gays around the world. But he doesn’t seem even to be aware of the rise in attacks against Christians. According to Open Doors International, the number of Christians murdered around the world for their faith has doubled over the past year, mostly at the hands of Islamist extremists.
Obama sometimes finds his voice on religious freedom, but is it often when he is preaching to the proverbial choir. Speaking recently at the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama gave a rousing speech about the growing threats to religious liberty around the world, even highlighting the plight of two American Christians imprisoned in North Korea and Iran.
But most of the National Prayer Breakfast crowd, of which I was part, was no doubt already informed about religious persecution and the imprisoning of American Christians abroad. Obama would do well to raise the issue of religious freedom to foreign citizens and governments, audiences to which Obama’s words might actually inform or persuade.
Virginia Representative Frank Wolf has called Obama’s response to religious persecution “anemic and at times outright baffling.” “America has always been a friend to the oppressed, the persecuted, the forgotten,” Wolf told the National Catholic Register last summer. “But, sadly, today, that allegiance is in question, as religious freedom and human rights abuses around the globe increasingly go unaddressed and unanswered.”
The Olympics have provided an opportunity for the West to shine a light on human rights abuses in Russia and around the world. That many western companies have chosen to concentrate on only a small portion of those abuses is a shame. That the president of the United States has done so is an injustice.