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Today is World Human Rights Day, the annual celebration of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The visionary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt was the driving force behind the Declaration and the United States had consistently pressed for the spread of human rights around the world for decades.
America’s longstanding authority as a global leader in human rights was one of our greatest national security assets. But the credibility of America’s commitment to human rights has been severely damaged in the wake of the Bush administration’s official policy of torture and abuse of detainees captured in the fight against Al Qaeda.
President Barack Obama prioritized reversing some of the previous administration’s worst policies, announcing the closure of Guantanamo Bay, unequivocally banning torture, and shutting down the CIA-run black prisons, all in the first days of his term. He also pledged that his administration would be the most transparent in American history, and he quickly followed through by releasing the memos the Bush administration relied upon to give legal cover for torture and other detainee abuse.
These early moves created the opening for President Obama to begin the essential process of restoring faith in the United States’ actions and motives, but they also put the president’s own credibility on the line to deliver the kinds of changes he promised.
Unfortunately, since those positive first actions, the Obama administration has fallen into a disturbing trend of relying on similar national security arguments the Bush administration used to deny public access to information about detainee abuse. There are appropriate instances to withhold information from the public based on national security concerns. But the frequency and pattern of its use is seemingly at odds with Obama’s stated positions and has caused many of the president’s early supporters to question his sincerity.
Some of the criticism equating Obama and Bush is ridiculous and irresponsible. But legitimate concerns about Obama’s policies do exist, especially as new questions have surfaced about past and present detainee treatment.
In many areas of the Obama presidency, expectations quickly outpaced any realistic capability to meet them. But it was Obama himself who promised a paradigm shift in U.S. detention policy and the most transparent presidency ever. Despite some unquestionable successes the Obama administration is still struggling to convince the public that a truly new era of American transparency and leadership on human rights has begun. Failure to live up to those standards would undermine the positive strides Obama has made on human rights policy and American national security.
Excessive government secrecy is an enemy of human rights and the rule of law. President Obama deserves praise for rejecting the underlying policies that caused the United States so much harm during the Bush years. But in withholding photos of detainee abuse, preventing legal challenges to torture and warrantless surveillance, and thwarting impartial hearings into suspicious deaths at Guantanamo, his administration has so far failed to pull down the veil of secrecy hiding the extent of Bush administration transgressions.
The Obama administration needs to build public confidence in the institutions of American government, especially now that new and credible allegations of recent detainee abuse have surfaced in Afghanistan. The early promise of the Obama administration can still be fulfilled if it rejects excessive secrecy and recalls its pledge on transparency.
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