How Did the State of the Union Stack Up On Human Rights?

January 21, 2015

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During tonight’s State of the Union address, President Obama touched on issues of national security, criminal justice reform, immigration policy and women’s health, all of which involve human rights.

It is important to promote awareness of these issues as part of the US national conversation. But as always, the proof is in the pudding. So how do President Obama’s words stack up against actions?

Torture. The release of the Senate torture report’s summary makes it clear the U.S. government used torture. Unless those responsible are held accountable, the door to future abuses will remain open. President Obama needs to do much more than just denounce torture, as he did this evening in his address. He must use the power of his office to ensure accountability for torture, enforced disappearances, and other human rights violations detailed in the report. He should also support legislation to prevent these abuses from occurring ever again.

Guantanamo. Tonight the president said that he would not relent in his determination to shut down the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Indeed, the Obama administration has finally begun to accelerate its efforts to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. The president must not yield to congressional pressure to keep the prison open indefinitely. All detainees still held there must be fairly tried or released. For thirteen years, the detention center at Guantanamo has been a stain on the United States’ human rights record. We agree with the resident that it is time to close it —no excuses, no delays.

Threat of Terrorism. Like the president, we are all horrified by the shocking brutality of attacks such as those in Paris, as well as those that he didn’t mention, such as the catastrophic destruction in northern Nigeria. If the U.S. is to be a true leader in human rights, it must condemn these actions without giving in to the politics of fear that led to reactionary abuses like indefinite detention at Guantanamo and torture. The president claims that he has not moved on from the debates over the surveillance program, and will endeavor to keep the country safe while protecting privacy. But too many in his administration are failing to rein in an NSA program empowered to keep millions of people around the world under surveillance. The president must resist calls to escalate religious and racial profiling, unnecessary mass surveillance, and intrusive intelligence and police practices that undermine the freedoms they are meant to protect.

Immigration. The president has demonstrated laudable leadership through his executive actions that provide sensible relief from deportation for as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants who are currently in the United States. But he must also ensure that systemic abuses such as arbitrary detention, violations of due process and abuses in detention are addressed at their core. Congress, with the president’s full support, must pass meaningful immigration reform that will end these human rights violations once and for all.

Race and Policing. The police-related deaths this year of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others emphasize the critical need for a national review on the use of force by police. We are glad that the president also sees this as a moment for criminal justice reform, and we welcomed the president’s creation of a federal task force on policing in the 21st century. But we hope that this is just the beginning of comprehensive reforms and accountability that will ensure that all law enforcement officers can be trusted, rather than feared, by the people they are sworn to protect.

Women’s Rights. We agree that women should have access to the health care they need and which is their human right. Which is why we call on the president to help protect women who are disproportionately at risk of abuses within the U.S., including Indigenous women who face an increased risk of sexual assault. Indian Health Services must implement long-overdue protocols to ensure that Indigenous women receive the health care and reproductive health services to which they are entitled.

What did you think of President Obama’s State of the Union address? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr using the hashtag #SOTURights.