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President Obama, When It Comes to Human Rights, We Need More Action, Not Words

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Jamil Dakwar,
Director, ACLU Human Rights Program
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March 2, 2016

The Obama administration this week made new pledges and commitments to protect “human rights and fundamental freedoms” to the United Nations in advance of the U.S. re-election to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Yet while the U.S. has used its first six years of HRC membership to advance human rights overseas, its participation has had little direct bearing on human rights at home. Lack of accountability for torture and cooperation with U.N. human rights experts are just two examples of such double standards.

When he took office, President Obama promised to disavow many of the disastrous Bush administration policies, including by closing Guantánamo and ending the use of torture. Obama also promised to reassert U.S. global leadership on human rights by joining the HRC later that year.

While the president issued an executive order on his second day in office ending the CIA’s secret detention and torture program, he declined to support any meaningful measures of accountability for crimes that had taken place. His policy of “looking forward rather than backward,” as well as his administration’s continuing fight against transparency and any attempts to reveal the whole truth about Bush administration torture policies, will undoubtedly stain his human rights legacy.

That’s why it was surprising when the U.S. government released the following statement earlier this week:

“The United States is committed to upholding our international obligations to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The United States supports the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Committee Against Torture, and in 2015, the United States was proud to become a participant in the Group of Friends of the Convention Against Torture Initiative.”

This kind of rhetoric is emblematic of the Obama administration’s hypocrisy and cherry-picking when it comes to U.S. international legal obligations. The U.S. is obligated under the Convention Against Torture not only to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. It is also obligated to hold accountable those who ordered or perpetrated acts of torture and to provide legal redress to victims. On these fronts, our government’s record has been abysmal. Yesterday Human Rights Watch and the ACLU submitted a response to the U.S. one year follow-up report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, which details the United States’ failure to meet its legal obligations to fully investigate acts of torture during the Bush administration.

When it comes to torture, the gap between rhetoric and action isn’t limited to the Bush administration’s record. While it is encouraging to see the U.S. expressing support for the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, consider the ways the U.S. has directly prevented this critically important institution from effectively doing its job.

The current special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, is about to end his six-year term. Since the early days of his mandate, he has repeatedly asked to visit U.S. prisons and detention facilities in order to examine the widespread use of solitary confinement, which often causes mental and physical suffering and can amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment — even torture. However, the U.S. has consistently stonewalled his requests and has so far failed to provide him with the minimum standards of access required by U.N. protocol for such visits. It is very likely that Mr. Mendez won’t be able to carry out his visit before the end of his term, which is exactly what the U.S. likely intended in delaying and dragging out the process. It’s simply outrageous that the United States won’t provide basic access to its domestic detention facilities, especially given that the U.S. is perhaps the only Western democracy that doesn’t have a permanent and independent monitoring system of all detention facilities.

American leadership on the world stage suffers when the country presents such a stark double standard on human rights and denies independent human rights monitors access to U.S. facilities abroad, like Guantánamo, and here in the United States.

This coming November, the U.S. will be on the ballot for a new three-year-term membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The Obama administration has another opportunity to demonstrate to the world that U.S. commitment to the universal prohibition against torture is serious and long-lasting. By upholding U.S. human rights obligations through action in addition to rhetoric, the Obama administration can send a strong message to future presidents that there will be consequences for breaking the law and more effectively press other governments to end torture abroad.

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