Today marks the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although the world has changed significantly over the past half century, the importance of human rights has not waned; rather, it has grown. The defense of human rights remains an important moral and security imperative. Nonetheless, the administration is sending mixed signals about its commitment to defending human rights around the world. The United States must stand more clearly and strongly for human rights. Nine issues to watch over the coming year are highlighted below.
Abu Ghraib. Despite an official investigation that directly tied the abuse at Abu Ghraib to decisions made by the Bush administration, no senior military or civilian official has been held accountable. Information has recently emerged that the abuse of prisoners was more widespread and more widely known than previously reported. Generals in Iraq had been alerted that military forces and CIA teams were secretly holding and beating Iraqi detainees as early as December 2003. New documents directly implicate senior civilian and military officials in an attempt to cover-up allegations of abuse. It is high time for President Bush to put meaning behind his pledge to hold all those responsible for torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners accountable. Holding accountable all those responsible for the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners is the minimum required to comply with our obligations to preserve and protect human rights.
Cuba. Observers should not be fooled by the recent release of a handful of dissidents—Cuba's political system remains as repressive as ever. Of the more than 75 dissidents arrested in the March 2003 crackdown, more than 60 remain behind bars, fulfilling sentences of up to 28 years, and additional activists have since been detained. Human rights activists on the island estimate that Cuba has more than 300 political prisoners. Meanwhile, the average Cuban struggles under the weight of the regime, prohibited from owning a business or entering a tourist hotel without permission from the government. Although the Bush administration has rightfully demanded the immediate release of political prisoners, its tightening of the economic embargo actually works against a democratic transition. By restricting family visits and remittances, the administration has cut off vital means of support for the dissident community. The tightening of the embargo has also further polarized the international community at a time when solidarity is essential to supporting dissidents' efforts to bring about democratic change on the island.
Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. The prison at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay undermines the Bush administration's pledge to spread freedom and democracy around the world. Internal legal memoranda reveal that the Bush administration chose to house detainees at Guantanamo because it believed that no court would have jurisdiction over the prison. President Bush's lawyer advised him that the Geneva Conventions were "quaint" and should not be applied to detainees held at Guantanamo. The Supreme Court of the United States has since ordered that prisoners be given hearings to review their status. The administration is fighting this decision, and recently argued in federal court that it should be allowed to use information obtained by torture in these hearings. A leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross that describes the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as "tantamount to torture" only makes clearer why this prison should be closed and the detention facilities of the U.S government brought back under the rule of law.
Haiti. The natural disasters that struck Haiti this year—tragically claiming the lives of thousands of people—only added to the unrest and lawlessness that has overtaken the country since insurgents threw out President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February. Instead of wielding its influence, the Bush administration has allowed the insurgents to remain armed, and a culture of corruption and impunity continues to plague Haitian society. The administration, which at best turned a blind eye to the coup, must now insist on the participation of all sectors of Haitian society in the national dialogue process. The administration must also insist on the ability of all political parties to contest free and fair elections in 2005. Finally, the administration must seek a bipartisan, long-term commitment in Congress to supporting Haiti's development, and permanently turn the tide in the country.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—considered important allies in the war on terrorism—have consistently poor human rights records. Restrictions on religious freedom are standard, and in Uzbekistan, Muslims have been routinely detained, tortured and imprisoned unfairly. Human rights organizations are not allowed in Turkmenistan, and those who open civil structures without government approval can be subjected to "corrective labor." Tajikistan's government continues to arrest arbitrarily political opponents and has used the war on terrorism for political gain. Similarly, human rights abuses have steadily increased over the past several years in Kyrgyzstan. Although President Bush apparently discussed human rights issues with Kazakhstan's president during a meeting in 2001, the White House did not issue a public statement to that effect, missing an opportunity to send a strong message to the region. U.S. engagement in the region can have a positive impact, but a consistent emphasis on human rights is critical in this regard.
Russia. President Bush has repeatedly said that one of his primary goals is to spread democracy throughout the world. Yet, on his watch, Russian democracy has floundered. Bush's friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has closed newspapers and TV stations, arrested Russian businessmen for political purposes, and, most recently, supported a rigged election in the Ukraine. His brutal methods of fighting terrorism in Chechnya have not stopped the violence there and, in fact, have made terror attacks more likely. Despite all of this, the Bush administration has been reluctant to criticize Putin and still counts him as a close ally. The United States must not allow hard-won rights and freedoms to be lost in Russia.
Saudi Arabia. Reports of unlawful executions, arrests, torture, and censorship continue to stream out of Saudi Arabia, but the administration has yet to cast a serious word of censure in the direction of the Saudi royals. Human Rights Watch has revealed flaws in the criminal justice system that run far deeper than the repressive "anti-terrorism" policies now endemic to many U.S. allies in the war on terror. Today, on Human Rights Day, three Saudi democracy advocates await trial in a closed-court for using the term "constitutional monarchy," and their lawyers, spokespersons, and supporters are being systematically arrested. While the administration asserts that democracy in the Middle East is a top priority, its blind-eye toward human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia sends the opposite message in the region.
Sudan. In September, the Bush administration declared that the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region constitutes genocide. As a signatory to the Genocide Convention, the United States is obligated both to prevent acts of genocide and to punish perpetrators. Yet, with the death toll having surpassed 70,000 and more than two million people in urgent need of humanitarian aid, the United States is failing every day in its responsibility to protect the innocent victims of Darfur. The United States must do more to end the genocide; but we must also act now on our responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable. There are a several courses of action available: the United States can agree to act immediately on the recommendations of the UN Commission of Inquiry that is charged with investigating human rights violations in Sudan; it can set aside funding to establish a truth commission or war crimes tribunal; it can vote to refer the case from the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court. What the Unites States cannot afford to do is nothing.
War Criminals at Large. President Bush often refers to "killing fields" when describing the brutal crimes committed by Saddam Hussein against his own people. However, given the international community's almost exclusive focus on Iraq, few seem to care that some of the world's most notorious mass murderers remain at-large. In the former Yugoslavia, indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have been able to evade arrest for almost a decade. In Nigeria, former Liberian President Charles Taylor continues to live with impunity, despite an international arrest warrant issued in March 2003 for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone. Twelve suspects remain at-large from the international war crimes tribunal charged with prosecuting individuals for the Rwandan genocide. After thirty years, no one from the Khmer Rouge has been brought to justice for the slaughter of over 2 million Cambodians. The continuing impunity of these criminals undermines the prevention and deterrence of future atrocities.
For more resources on these and other human rights issues, visit: