New Era for Human Rights

Bill Schulz offers five steps the new administration can take to signal a new era in human rights policy for the United States.

A razor-wired fence is shown above the Camp Delta 2 and 3 base sign at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Closing Guantanamo should be one of five priorities for the new Obama administration to introduce a new era of U.S. human rights policy. (AP/Haraz Ghanbari)
A razor-wired fence is shown above the Camp Delta 2 and 3 base sign at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Closing Guantanamo should be one of five priorities for the new Obama administration to introduce a new era of U.S. human rights policy. (AP/Haraz Ghanbari)

The following article is reproduced with permission from The Boston Globe, Copyright 2008, The Boston Globe.

The world has applauded the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, and the delegates to a recent meeting of the Interparliamentary Union in Geneva, a group of legislators from 154 countries, were no different. "It will be wonderful to see someone other than George Bush as president, and a black man at that, but will Obama really do what is needed to restore America’s credibility when it comes to human rights?" one asked.

There are many reasons the favorability rating of the United States has plummeted around the world in the past eight years, but one of the most telling has been our abandonment of human-rights leadership. Few Americans realize how much Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary renditions, and the refusal to renounce the use of torture continue to tarnish our reputation. Hopes are high that these policies will be reversed soon.

But, faced as the new president will be with enormous economic challenges, to say nothing of war on two fronts, repairing our human-rights persona may not top his "To Do" list. After all, only two questions about human rights – one on Darfur and one on whether healthcare is a right or a privilege – made it into the presidential debates.

So how can President Obama most effectively signal the advent of a new era in US human-rights policy? Here are five initiatives the new administration can undertake quickly without expending huge sums of money or political capital:

Announce the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay at a date certain. John McCain also favored the shutting down of GITMO and, though it may take some time to figure out how best to process or prosecute the remaining prisoners, setting a date to close the camp will send a powerful message of intention, just as President-elect Obama’s commitment to get out of Iraq in a specified period of time has done.

Extend the ban on torture to the intelligence services. Congress put a lid on the use of torture by the military but President Bush indicated that prohibition would not apply to the intelligence services. President Obama should make clear that it does.

Send the secretary of state to Sudan. The United States has denounced the mass atrocities in Darfur but failed to mount a concerted effort to stop them. The new secretary of state should make Khartoum the first foreign destination and should deliver a firm message of resolve. Appointing a high-level US envoy (Colin Powell?) to shepherd a renewed initiative to bring peace to Darfur would reinforce Obama’s seriousness in resolving the crisis.

"Re-sign" the International Criminal Court treaty. In one of the most bizarre actions of the Bush presidency, the United States sought to remove President Clinton’s signature from the treaty establishing the court. By "withdrawing the letter of withdrawal" and committing to send representatives to the 2009 Review Conference that will consider amendments to the court’s statutes, the new administration can seek adjustments that would make eventual ratification by the Senate more likely.

Reappoint observers to the UN Human Rights Council. While the council has been a disappointment to almost everyone and the United States has chosen not to stand for election to it, last June the Bush administration went so far as to remove even observers from the council’s meetings. Such petty detachment gains us nothing and comes across as hubris. The new president should reverse the decision.

Many other human-rights challenges will face an Obama administration, from how to rescue democracy promotion from the stain of Iraq to how best to pressure human-rights abusers such as Burma and Zimbabwe. No president can do everything at once. But the five steps outlined here, modest though they are, will go far toward assuaging any skepticism that the new president intends to set a different course for human rights.

The political philosopher Edmund Burke defended Marie Antoinette from her revolutionary critics by heralding her attractive appearance and winsome ways. Thomas Paine’s reaction to Burke’s fawning was astute: "He pities the plumage," Paine said, "but forgets the dying bird." The Bush administration has framed many of its policies in the plumage of human rights while at the same time undermining the very principles it invoked. Time now to trade reality for appearance. Time now to resuscitate the injured, if not dying, bird.

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