On the launch of its 2015 State of the World report, Amnesty International USA urged President Obama to use his last year in office to bring U.S. laws and policies in line with international human rights standards.
By delaying the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison, refusing to welcome refugees, failing to reform the criminal justice system, abandoning human rights defenders persecuted by repressive allies and allowing gun violence to continue unabated, the United States has contributed to the erosion of human rights, according to the organization.
Amnesty International’s global State of the World report finds that many governments, including the U.S., have brazenly broken international law and are deliberately undermining institutions meant to protect people’s rights. Around the world, short-term national interest, political expediency and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights.
“Worldwide we have seen human rights and freedom take a backseat to misguided fear and xenophobia masquerading as patriotism. The United States has been no exception,” said Margaret Huang, interim executive director of Amnesty International USA. “President Obama has often said the right thing but failed to turn his rhetoric into an agenda that makes human rights, in fact, a national priority.”
Amnesty International USA has identified some steps that the president can take within the upcoming year to improve the United States’ overall record on human rights. These include:
- finally shuttering the prison at Guantánamo Bay, ending indefinite detention altogether and either charging detainees and trying them in federal court or releasing them;
- declassifying evidence and investigating criminal wrongdoing related to the U.S. torture program;
- raising substantially the number of refugees accepted into the United States, with a specific increase in the number of the most vulnerable refugees, and a robust funding of global resettlement programs;
- ensuring that no one will be returned to a country where they would be at risk of serious human rights violations;
- establishing a National Crime and Justice Task Force and collecting data on the police use of lethal force nationwide – including the number of deaths by race, gender, age and other demographics;
- taking steps to revise federal and state laws and policies in order to ensure that lethal force is only used by law enforcement as a last resort to protect against an imminent threat to life or serious injury;
- working with Congress to take prompt action to dramatically reduce the numbers of people impacted by gun violence each year, including nominating and appointing a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and asking for universal background checks.
- championing the cause of human rights defenders by calling on countries – including allies like Saudi Arabia — to free prisoners of conscience such as human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair and writer Raif Badawi.
“The United States has an opportunity to play a key role in alleviating the suffering of refugees and victims of violence both at home and around the world,” said Huang. “Far from being an obstacle, human rights are absolutely necessary to security and peace. The president cannot afford to let this opportunity go by.”
Worldwide, Amnesty International found that in 2015 more than 98 states tortured or otherwise ill-treated people, and 30 or more illegally forced refugees to return to countries where they would be in danger. In at least 18 countries, war crimes or other violations of the “laws of war” were committed by governments or armed groups.
“It is within world leaders’ power to prevent these crises from spiraling further out of control,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “Governments must halt their assault on our rights and strengthen the defenses the world has put in place to protect them. Human rights are a necessity, not an accessory; and the stakes for humankind have never been higher.” Amnesty International also determined that the United Nations and its offices for protecting human rights and refugees have suffered severely from the hostility and neglect of recalcitrant governments last year.
Many governments have wilfully thwarted UN action to prevent mass atrocities or hold to account their perpetrators, and several governments have rejected or poured scorn on UN recommendations to improve human rights at the national level. For example, members of the UN Security Council have used their veto to block action and accountability for war crimes in Syria.
Amnesty International is calling for UN member states and the UN Security Council to show brave new thinking in moving towards reform, starting with a more transparent process by which a new Secretary-General is elected later this year.