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Keeping Our Promise to Human Rights

Jamil Dakwar,
Director, ACLU Human Rights Program
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December 9, 2009

Seven months ago, the United States issued a list of human rights commitments and pledges in support of U.S. candidacy for membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The decision to join the Human Rights Council was the right thing to do. It was as an important step in breaking with the Bush administration’s unilateral and disastrous policies on human rights. While we welcomed this move, we noted that the Obama administration had “missed an opportunity to detail exactly how it will reaffirm its commitment to ending human rights violations at home beyond vague rhetoric.” We warned the Obama administration to “move beyond ambiguous commitments which are similar to the ones heard from the Bush administration over the past eight years.”

There is no question that this administration is currently facing multiple and daunting challenges, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the safe closing of Guantánamo, the economic crisis and rising unemployment, health care, energy reform and much more. However, nearly a year after Obama’s inauguration, the administration has yet to announce any major domestic human rights initiative, outline a detailed plan to honor and expand our existing human rights commitments and translate them into domestic policy, or incorporate them into the daily working of the U.S. government.

Tomorrow, the president will accept the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is traditionally given out on Human Rights Day, which marks the 61st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in the 1940s, called this landmark document “the Magna Carta for humanity.”

We have seen this administration take bold steps in the early days of Obama’s presidency when three executive orders were signed pledging to close Guantánamo within one year, end CIA secret detentions overseas and reaffirming the absolute prohibition against torture. Furthermore, the administration has also committed to advancing civil rights and promoting equal opportunity. We all remember the presidential speech on civil rights delivered at the NAACP annual meeting, and the administration’s strong support for legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which the administration supported in testimony before Congress (PDF). The president has committed to advance women’s rights by issuing an executive order establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls and prioritizing a critical women’s rights treaty for ratification. The administration’s commitment to persons with disabilities has been made clear in the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the White House’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, there has been much debate and criticism about decisions the Obama administration has made in the subsequent months on a number of important issues. The administration has been reluctant to fully investigate acts of torture committed by the Bush administration and end the practice of extraordinary rendition. The practice of invoking the state secret privilege to block accountability continues, and the discredited military commissions in Guantánamo Bay have been revived. There has also been no announcement of a significant action or initiative to fully honor our human rights commitments and treaty obligations and fully incorporate them into national security policies including the treatment, detention, trial and repatriation of detainees in U.S. custody overseas notwithstanding the announcement in September of the detention and prison reforms in Afghanistan.

Therefore, we must continue to make the case for human rights here at home by supporting the goals of the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda – a broad coalition of approximately 50 U.S.-based human and civil rights, civil liberties and social justice organizations tasked with finding the best fusion between civil rights and human rights. Key objectives of the campaign include:

  • A new, enhanced executive order revitalizing the Interagency Working Group on Human Rights to coordinate the efforts of federal agencies and departments to respect and implement human rights obligations as U.S. domestic policy;
  • Transforming the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights into a U.S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights;
  • Monitoring government compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination which the U.S. ratified in 1994; and,
  • Strengthening federal, state, and local government coordination to support human rights.

On Human Rights Day 11 years ago, President Clinton issued an executive order creating an Interagency Working Group on Human Rights, which was subsequently disbanded during the Bush administration. The ACLU reiterates its call for the resurrection of a more effective Interagency Working Group on Human Rights to coordinate and promote human rights within domestic policy, and for the implementation and enforcement of ratified human rights treaties and essentially bridging the often artificial gaps between civil rights and human rights.

Further, President Obama must make it clear that human dignity is of paramount importance, and that accountability for human rights is a U.S. national interest. The administration must seize the opportunity to uphold core American values of fairness and justice for all by building a much-needed human rights infrastructure here at home.

While presidential speeches, like the one expected in Norway tomorrow, are important to rally public support for human rights, what is needed is unequivocal and concrete action to honor human rights commitments at home. Too many people have suffered as the United States’ human rights record crumbled under the Bush administration. The time is for action is now.

Jamil is a steering committee member of the Campaign for New Domestic Human Rights Agenda.

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