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Kenneth Roth’s “Empty Promises?”: On Obama and Human Rights

Kenneth Roth’s “Empty Promises?”: On Obama and Human Rights

February 25, 2010

Posted yesterday at Human Rights Watch, here’s a portion of “Empty Promises?”, Kenneth Roth’s lengthy critique of Obama and his administration with respect to human rights:

After eight years of the Bush administration, with its torture of suspected terrorists and disregard for international law, Barack Obama’s victory in the November 2008 U.S. presidential election seemed a breath of fresh air to human rights activists. Obama took office at a moment when the world desperately needed renewed U.S. leadership. In his inaugural address, Obama immediately signaled that, unlike Bush, he would reject as false “the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Obama faces the challenge of restoring the United States’ credibility at a time when repressive governments — emboldened by the increasing influence of authoritarian powers such as China and Russia — seek to undermine the enforcement of international human rights standards. As he put it when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States cannot “insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves.” His Nobel speech in Oslo also affirmed the U.S. government’s respect for the Geneva Conventions. “Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules,” Obama argued, “I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.”

When it comes to promoting human rights at home and abroad, there has undoubtedly been a marked improvement in presidential rhetoric. However, the translation of those words into deeds remains incomplete.

… Two days after taking office, [Obama] insisted that all U.S. interrogators, including those from the CIA, abide by the stringent standards adopted by the U.S. military in the wake of the Abu Ghraib debacle. He also ordered the shuttering of all secret CIA detention facilities, where many suspects “disappeared” and were tortured between 2001 and 2008. Finally, he promised to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year.

But it is not enough for the government to stop using torture; perpetrators must also be punished. The Obama administration has so far refused to investigate and prosecute those who ordered or committed torture — a necessary step to prevent future administrations from committing the crime. While in office, as he did during the campaign, Obama has repeatedly spoken of wanting to “look forward, not back.” And although Attorney General Eric Holder has launched a “preliminary review” of interrogators who exceeded orders, he has until now refrained from prosecuting those who ordered torture or wrote the legal memos justifying it. This lets senior officials — arguably those who are most culpable — off the hook.

For much more, see the full article at Human Rights Watch — and for more on the state of human rights around the globe, take a look at World Report 2010 from HRW and Seven Stories Press.

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