Obama’s Hesitant Embrace of Human Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama has vocally promoted a human rights agenda. Now, his administration must translate his rhetoric into practice.

KENNETH ROTH is Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

The Obama administration has decided to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged 9/11 plotters in federal court in New York. In a 2008 essay, Kenneth Roth outlined why and how the U.S. government should use the criminal justice system to prosecute terrorists.


Capsule Review

A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights G. John Ikenberry Read


Are Human Rights Universal? Thomas M. Franck
More and more, the universality of human rights is being challenged. But groups such as the Taliban, who claim to stand for specific values, rarely speak for those they supposedly represent. Herewith a defense of truly global 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 ‘ OH WHAT ABOUT iSRAEL ??’– 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.
Obama moved rapidly to reverse the most abusive aspects of the Bush administration’s approach to fighting terrorism. Two days after taking office, he 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. EMPTY PROMISES ?

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