OSLO (Reuters) - Barack Obama needs to make good on the promises that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, fellow laureate and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said on Thursday.
On the eve of this year’s Nobel award, which could honor the Arab Spring protesters who caught Washington off guard by toppling autocratic leaders who were U.S. allies, Carter told Reuters he hoped his fellow Democrat would keep promises on promoting human rights, Middle East peace and other issues.
“I hope he’ll fulfill the promises that were made at the time he got the peace prize,” Carter said in an interview when asked what Obama, who was honored in 2009 after being in office less than a year, could do to live up to the honor.
“It was given primarily because of some of the commitments he had made verbally, his speeches and so forth about taking the leadership role and dealing with global warming and dealing with the immigration problem, enhancing human rights, promoting peace in the Middle East,” said Carter, a prizewinner in 2002.
“I hope that some of those promises will be realized,” he said, adding that he believed Obama would overcome sagging poll ratings to win re-election to a second term next year.
Carter, 86, who has worked to resolve conflicts and promote democracy since losing office 30 years ago, has been critical of U.S. — and Israeli — positions on Middle East peace and called Obama’s likely veto of giving U.N. membership to a Palestinian state a “mistake” at a time when, he believed, the Arab Spring had opened new possibilities for settling the region’s disputes.
Obama, who acknowledged that his award was controversial in 2009 when “at the beginning and not at the end” of his presidency, has been accused of failing to deliver on promises made in a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo that year.
The toppling this year of Tunisia’s strongman followed by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally, drew criticism that Washington was slow to back the democrats at their expense.
The shaking up of authoritarian rule in the Arab world has, Carter said, brought opportunities for resolving a conflict in which he, when president, was credited with helping broker the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Noting his support for the Palestinian push this year for their statehood to be recognized at the United Nations, he said he hoped they would secure backing in the U.N. General Assembly to at least enhance their status in the body. But he said the U.S. veto in the Security Council would block full membership.
“The United States will veto any move in the Security Council if they get the votes there, which I think is a mistake. But that’s the privilege of the president to decide,” he said during a brief visit to Oslo to meet Norwegian diplomats.
“But I think the entire Arab Spring movement is at least breaking the ice and letting some more flexibility be introduced into a stalemated Middle East situation.”
Many tipsters think the Norwegian Nobel Committee, appointed by the parliament in Oslo, may honor the young, Twitter-using demonstrators who humbled police states in Tunis and Cairo and set an example for Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis and others.
But the Peace Prize is notoriously difficult to predict and Carter, whose presence in Oslo was, he said, coincidental, would not be drawn on a forecast: “I don’t have any way to know ahead of time,” he said. “I didn’t know when I got it.”
Though often controversial, the award could be a force for good, Carter said, even in cases like last year’s prize for imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, which prompted reprisals against Norway by Beijing and has been followed by what rights activists describe as a stepping up of pressure on dissent.
“I think it was possibly a positive factor in China although they’d disavow that and they react adversely as you know when there’s any criticism from outside about the human rights policy,” said Carter, who noted he has been a regular visitor to China since he normalized U.S. relations with Beijing in 1979.
Based on his own frequent work as an election observer, he praised the “fairly good democracy” allowed in small village elections, though recent developments had been less positive: “I think the Arab Spring signals have cautioned the Chinese leaders not to permit as much flexibility.”
At the same time, however, he noted China’s acceptance of the rebellion in Libya: “The Chinese have been fairly supportive of some of the moves toward democracy, like in Libya ... so I have hopes for the future, that Chinese political freedom will follow their economic freedom.”
The fall of Mubarak has left the army in control of Egypt and Carter said he was keen that his teams should play a role, as Egyptian democracy campaigners want, in observing eventual elections there — something the generals have been hesitant about permitting, citing concerns about sovereignty.
Carter, who plans to observe Tunisia’s election later this month, said he spoke last week to Egypt’s interim leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi: “We have offered our services to monitor the election there ... and he’s invited me to ‘witness’ the election. That’s a distance from ‘observing’.”
But even that could promote the democratic process, Carter said: “They’re very careful about their sovereignty so we’ll play whatever role they permit us to ... Any outside presence, even far short of official observer status, will help to deter improper election procedures. It helps to stabilize the situation. It gives some confidence to the opposition parties.”
Editing by Janet Lawrence