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Deeds, Not Words, Matter Most

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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April 28, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

Yesterday, the Obama administration posted a pledge, Human Rights Commitments and Pledges of the United States of America, in support of the United States’ candidacy for membership in the UN Human Rights Council. You may remember that we first heard about this bid for membership last month, and we welcomed the decision as it reversed the Bush administration’s policy. We thought the move was promising, as it affirmed the administration’s commitment to human rights at home and abroad and we eagerly reviewed the promises made in the document.

The document lists various commitments and pledges by the United States to champion the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noting “As the United States seeks to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world, we do so cognizant of our own commitment to live up to our ideals at home and to meet our international human rights obligations.” We concur, and in an essay about human rights, Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program notes,

Opening a new chapter in promoting and protecting human rights at home will require all branches of government to engage proactively to bring current policies and laws into compliance with human rights commitments. To do so, President Obama will have to work with Congress to implement these commitments by transforming them into detailed domestic laws, policies, and programs with effective enforcement and monitoring mechanisms.

Unfortunately, when reading Commitments and Pledges, it becomes clear that the Obama administration has missed an opportunity to detail exactly how it will reaffirm its commitment to ending human rights violations at home beyond vague rhetoric. This administration must move beyond ambiguous commitments which are similar to the ones heard from the Bush administration over the past eight years.

There’s mention of racism being prevalent in the United States today, consideration of domestic ratification of human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (which by the way, has been ratified by 185 countries!), enforcement of the ADA and the importance of religious freedom. However, Pledges and Commitments stillcomes up short.

While we appreciate the Obama administration’s recommitment to “meeting its UN treaty obligations and participating in meaningful dialogue with treaty body members” and “fighting racism and discrimination, and acts of violence committed because of racial or ethnic hatred,” it is not enough. We have to implement the recommendations from the committees that review the U.S. compliance with human rights conventions, including the Human Rights Committee, the CERD Committee, and the Committee against Torture. The Obama administration has yet to implement the CERD committee’s recommendations from last year, and most importantly, come up with an action plan to implement ICERD in the U.S. Furthermore, although we’re delighted to see that the U.S. is committed to promoting human rights and prosperity of “all persons within the United States,” we want more specificity on how this will take place. Don’t forget, the U.S. has a poor record of promoting and enforcing human rights laws in the United States. See the ACLU publication on the UDHR, which discusses the U.S. failure to uphold human rights at home to learn more.

Finally, we’ve noticed that there are a few issues that are conspicuously absent from the list. There’s no mention of protecting and preserving the rights of victims of human rights violations and the role of the judiciary to uphold human rights and provide meaningful remedy — an American hallmark. Even more surprising, is the absence of key human rights issues related to national security. There is no mention of ending torture and arbitrary detention and promoting fair trial standards. These national security issues are fundamental components of an American human rights agenda, especially now when the world is watching as our past abuses come to light.

The ACLU believes that enforcing the ban on torture, shutting down Guantánamo, and access to due process are critical and necessary steps for the United States. In a press release issued yesterday, Dakwar added:

In order to fully restore its position as a leader on human rights around the world, the U.S. must pledge to promote fair trial standards, end torture and arbitrary and indefinite detention and hold government officials accountable for violating U.S. and international human rights laws.

These bold accountability and transparency measures are essential for our future and for our standing in the world.

The time is now and the stakes couldn’t be higher — the U.S. has ratified the Convention Against Torture and even the Bush administration told the Committee against Torture (which monitors compliance with the Torture Convention) that “The U.S. government is committed to investigating and holding accountable those who engage in acts of torture or other unlawful treatment of detainees.” And let’s not forget former Attorney General and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales who stated during a press briefing in 2004, “Anyone engaged in conduct that constitutes torture will be held accountable.”

The Obama administration must truly break with the Bush administration, and take concrete action at home because the world is watching and our credibility will be determined by our actions. Deeds, not words, matter most.

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