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New Briefing Paper: Obama's Unfinished Business on Human Rights

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Devon Chaffee,
Legislative Policy Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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March 21, 2012

Today, the ACLU laid out concrete steps the Obama administration should take to live up to the human rights promises it made to the U.N. just over one year ago. The release of our new briefing paper coincides with the administration’s announcement today of a newly created interagency process for implementing those commitments. The new process is a step in the right direction, and will establish working groups in areas such as criminal justice, immigration, and national security.

Starting in spring 2009, before the United States officially joined the U.N. Human Rights Council, U.S. officials recognized that America needed to improve its domestic compliance with its obligations under international human rights treaties. In March 2011, during the council’s evaluation of U.S. domestic human rights performance (known as the Universal Periodic Review), the administration made even more specific commitments to take action to bring its policies in line with those obligations.

The administration made these human rights commitments publically, in front of the world community and with the input of each of the relevant federal agencies. It is now time for the administration to make good on these promises by implementing tangible reform, and it must ensure that the government teams working on these reforms are held accountable for delivering measurable progress.

The ACLU briefing paper released today matches up specific U.N. recommendations – which the administration has already accepted – with specific domestic policy reforms. Our briefing paper provides the new teams announced today by the administration with substantive work plans that can achieve a broad range of human rights improvements on issues including racial profiling, the death penalty, and immigration detention.

The paper describes steps in a number of areas that the administration can reasonably take in the near term without the help of Congress. These actions include, for example, launching a study into the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons; providing U.N. Special Rapporteurs unimpeded access to Guantánamo Bay; and preventing transfers to countries where prisoners may be tortured by increasing transparency around safeguards. Such incremental reforms will not solve the nation’s domestic human rights problems. But their adoption will put the country on the right track towards greater adherence.

If the United States wants to be seen as a human rights leader abroad then it needs to act like a leader at home. The administration has a limited window of opportunity to turn its human rights pledges into policy. It’s time for the administration to put muscle behind its rhetoric and deliver the progress it has recognized that the American people deserve.

Photo: UN Photo/John Isaac

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