Human Rights: Time to Practice What We Preach

May 4, 2010

Originally posted on

In a recent speech to the American Society of International Law (ASIL) the legal advisor to the State Department, Harold Koh, stressed the “most important difference” between the Obama and the Bush administrations is their “approach and attitude toward international law.” Koh said this difference is illustrated by an emerging “Obama-Clinton Doctrine,” based on a commitment to four main principles: “principled engagement; diplomacy as a critical element of smart power; strategic multilateralism; and the notion that living our values makes us stronger and safer, by following rules of domestic and international law; and following universal standards, not double standards.”

The commitments to “principled engagement” and “living our values” are especially vital to advancing human rights. For years, U.S. leadership on the world stage has suffered because the U.S. seems to hold a double standard on human rights. Historically, notions of U.S. exceptionalism and selectively ignoring injustices and human rights violations at home and abroad have bred mistrust of U.S. leadership based on our incomplete commitment to universal human rights. The Obama administration, however, has committed to leading by example. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this means “holding everyone to the same standard, including ourselves.”

In many areas, the administration’s actions have matched its rhetoric. Joining the United Nations Human Rights Council and signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have both sent the right message that President Obama is prepared to engage with the international community on new and more principled terms than previous administrations. The appointment of many officials who are self-defined human rights champions with careers both inside and outside the government promoting civil and human rights evinces a commitment to “a vision of common humanity, universal rights and rule of law.” Moreover, the willingness of this administration to work with members of civil society to align our human rights rhetoric with our human rights practices demonstrates a commitment to lead by example based on both “principled engagement” and “living our values.”

These efforts, however, are not enough. What we have yet to see are new bold steps that prioritize human rights at home. This administration has not adopted domestic policies designed to translate its rhetoric and commitments into reality. And although the administration has made positive statements about the indivisibility of rights and the importance of recognition of economic, social and cultural rights, there has been no concrete action to fully incorporate those principles into domestic policies. “Principled engagement” and “living our values” require nothing short of a complete reversal of the positions, policies and practices from which this administration has assiduously worked to distance itself. This is the type of change an Obama presidency promised. This is the hope on which many relied when casting their votes in the 2008 election.

The Human Rights at Home Campaign was launched shortly after that historic election. A coalition of more than 50 human rights, civil rights and social justice organizations, the campaign is working to strengthen our country’s commitment to human rights at home and abroad. Its goal is to create a national political culture that supports and advocates for human rights. Essential to achieving that goal is establishing a human rights infrastructure to fulfill human rights promises and legal commitments made by both Democratic and Republican administrations and congressional leaders. To this end, the campaign has endorsed four specific objectives:

  • revitalizing an Interagency Working Group on Human Rights to coordinate the efforts of the executive departments and agencies both to promote and respect human rights and to implement human rights obligations in U.S. domestic policy;
  • transforming the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights into a U.S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights, to expand its mandate to include not only civil and human rights issues, but also monitoring human rights implementation and enforcement efforts, and to make structural reforms to improve the commission’s ability to function as an independent national human rights institution;
  • ensuring meaningful government compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the U.S. ratified in 1994; and
  • strengthening federal, state, and local government coordination in support of human rights.

As a first step, the campaign has been calling on the administration to issue an executive order reconstituting the Interagency Working Group on Human Rights (IAWGHR). Initially established by President Clinton, this working group coordinated efforts within the executive branch to monitor, implement and enforce ratified human rights treaties. The Bush administration disbanded the working group, replacing it with a weaker interagency policy committee on human rights which mainly coordinated the submission of U.S. periodic reports to human rights treaty bodies. A reconstituted IAWGHR is one of the cornerstones of an effective human rights infrastructure, and a new executive order is absolutely imperative to putting this cornerstone in place.

Issuing a new executive order will increase the effectiveness and coordination of the efforts of the executive branch to meet our domestic human rights obligations by creating, in one standing body, an identifiable focal point for the administration’s human rights activities and policy work. An executive order that creates a mechanism that ensures organized interagency coordination will better enable the United States to meet its articulated commitments to “principled engagement” and “living our values.” In addition, this type of mechanism would establish a specific structure with a systematic and transparent process for handling human rights and would enhance federal, state and local coordination in support of human rights.

In addition to being a major symbolic achievement, issuance of an executive order sets forth a definitive plan, displays assertive action and lays the groundwork for the demand that other nations follow our lead.

Take action and join the Human Rights at Home Campaign, the ACLU and Amnesty International USA in calling for a new and comprehensive executive order on human rights.

By Cristina Finch, Managing Director of Government Relations for Amnesty International USA and Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program.