President Obama: Recapture the Human Rights High Ground

November 7, 2012

President Obama
US President Barack Obama gives a thumbs-up after winning the 2012 US presidential election in Chicago on November 7, 2012. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When President Obama was first elected in 2008, many human rights activists rejoiced. It had been eight long years where the United States tortured, detained hundreds without charge and trial and tried to justify the horrors of Abu Ghraib.  His first campaign for the White House offered the promise of an administration that would recapture the United States’ credibility on human rights issues, bringing detention practices in line with international law, repudiating secrecy and ensuring that human rights weren’t traded away in the name of national security.

More simply, President Obama promised a new dawn of American leadership, one in which human rights would be given more than lip-service.

Unfortunately, the first Obama administration broke many of its promises when human rights were pitted against national security interests. When it comes to countering terrorism, President Obama has hidden behind national security imperatives to shield administration policy in secrecy and pursue programs such as expanded drone use and thwarted accountability.

President Obama’s second term will determine whether the post 9/11 stains on the United States’ human rights record are an anomaly or the new normal.  It was Mitt Romney who said of the challenges of counter-terrorism that ‘we can’t kill our way out of this mess,’ But too many of President Obama’s policies are an attempt to do just that:  kill lists, drone strikes and disposition matrixes will not restore the United States’ credibility or the respect it needs around the world to keep the United States safe.

Unlawful killings and other human rights violations sanctioned by the U.S government undermine the rule of law globally, creating a climate in which other countries can point to a double-standard to justify their own human rights abuses with the refrain, ‘if the U.S. government does that, why shouldn’t we.’

The United States’ power and influence should derive from its commitment to the rule of law and to advancing human rights and dignity.  President Obama should not trade that away at any price.

President Obama has been given a second chance to keep his promises on human rights. Don’t blow it.