Obama – a chance to build respect for human rights

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama rejected as “false” the choice between safety and respect for human rights. He has since moved swiftly to turn words into action, issuing three executive orders that promise an end to some of the most contentious policies of the past administration’s “war on terror”.

President Obama ordered the closure within a year of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, symbol of the previous government’s disregard for human rights.

He ordered the CIA to close any long-term detention facilities it was operating, and prohibited it from operating such facilities in the future.

He also banned the harshest techniques used by the CIA in its secret detention programme, a programme in which enforced disappearance and torture – both crimes under international law – have been committed.

Millions of people felt included in the new President’s message of hope and the possibility of change. But as he recognised, there is much work to be done.

There must be accountability for human rights violations committed by or on behalf of the US authorities – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, or in the secret detention programme.

The USA’s reputation has been damaged internationally by its flouting of international law and its failure to engage constructively with UN human rights mechanisms. This can easily be remedied if the new administration ratifies all core international human rights treaties and protocols, while withdrawing limiting conditions on treaties it has promised to uphold. President Obama’s government should also ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and re-engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In response to the ongoing conflicts around the world, President’s Obama prompt engagement with the Middle East is a most notable break with the past and a source of hope particularly for Israelis and Palestinians. The USA should support accountability for abuses against all civilians and place human rights at the centre of efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.

President Obama’s pledge to fight poverty globally is another welcome commitment.   There are also millions of US citizens living in poverty and stark racial disparities persist in housing, health care, employment, education and the criminal justice system. President Obama’s pledge to raise the quality of health care and lower its cost should be applauded as an important step, to be backed by practical measures and adequate funding to ensure universal access to health care.

A commitment to uphold human rights domestically must also extend to ending harsh conditions in “supermaximum” security prisons, eliminating police brutality and use of Taser guns, and addressing discrimination within the criminal justice system. The administration’s leadership is also crucial in addressing domestic and other violence against women and eliminating all forms of legal discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

Finally, President Obama should uphold the right to life also by personally leading the USA away from the death penalty, starting with declaring a moratorium on all federal executions.

The outpouring of support for Barack Obama’s election and his first executive orders  have put the values embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, crafted by the USA and others over 60 years ago, at the centre of the US domestic and international political agendas once again.