Human Rights Stories Left Untold During the State of the Union Address

February 13, 2013

Nabeel Rajab
A Bahraini Shiite Muslim youth holds a picture of prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab during a demonstration in Bahrain on June 11, 2012. MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/GettyImages

There is a human component to every State of the Union that is often overlooked.

Jacqueline Montanez was 15 years old when she received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a crime she committed as a child.

Nabeel Rajab is currently serving a two-year sentence in prison for organizing and participating in a peaceful protest against the Bahraini government.

Najiba was 22 when she was shot dead after being accused of adultery in Afghanistan.

Shaker Aamer remains detained at Guantanamo Bay without charge or criminal trial.

Reggie Clemons was sentenced to death for the murder of two women in 1991 amidst serious concerns and allegations of police coercion and prosecutorial misconduct.

Jean-Claude Mbede is currently in hiding from authorities in Cameroon after he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment just for being gay.

Just two weeks ago in Mali, Amnesty International met two former child soldiers who had been forcibly recruited and made to fight in the conflict.

These are just a few of the people behind the policies the President failed to mention during his State of the Union address to the nation. Each of these individuals represents hundreds, if not thousands of others whose human rights have been and are being violated. To bring an end the abuses to which they and others have been subjected, we must shine a light on their stories and hold President Obama to account for ensuring that stated ideals of democracy and dignity promotion are grounded in human rights.

He has many reasons to do so.

Jacqueline might not have had to spend her entire life in prison for a crime she committed when she was only 15 if the U.S. Senate had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, inspiring individual states to abolish juvenile life without parole.

Nabeel might be able to peacefully protest his government without fear of reprisal had the U.S. abided by existing laws that tie our support to foreign security forces to their human rights practices.

Najiba might still be alive if the U.S. had actively held accountable the Afghan government for promptly and fully enforcing its law on Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Today Shaker might be marking the 11th anniversary of his detention without charge or conviction with his wife and children in London, not behind bars in a prison that President Obama promised to close four years ago.

Reggie would not have spent the last sixteen years of his life on death row if U.S. had abolished the death penalty, the ultimate denial of human rights.

Jean-Claude might not be in fear of his life if the U.S. joined other nations in pressing Cameroon to respect the international human rights principle that no one should be targeted on account of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

And perhaps the two children that Amnesty International met in Mali might have been able to avoid the horrors of war had the United States championed a strong Arms Trade Treaty that would help end the forced recruitment of child soldiers by stopping the transfer of arms to governments and armed groups that abuse human rights.

As President Obama enjoys the afterglow of an idealistic speech eloquently delivered, real people who experience real human rights abuses are only left wondering if the U.S. government will finally match its rhetoric with its policies. I don’t think they are counting on it.