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Obama's empty promises on human rights



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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April 20, 2010

One of the troubles with all the current emphasis on health care and nuclear weapons in American politics is that other issues are being given less attention. Human rights, supposedly one of President Barack Obama's copper bottomed commitments, has taken if not a back seat at least one far from the front. And don't ask the Europeans to take over the show. In the current general election campaign in Britain human rights abroad rarely gets a mention, even though the country is the birth place of Amnesty International.

Quite a few European countries got badly compromised by the Bush Administration's policy of rendition - sending a terrorist suspect off to a country which didn't have scruples about harsh interrogation techniques. Even today, when you think they might be hanging their heads in shame for this outrage, there is not much effort to respond to Obama's plea to take in released detainees from Guantanamo.

Although US Attorney General Eric Holder has initiated a "preliminary review" of interrogators who exceeded orders he has done nothing about prosecuting those whom it is known used torture or, higher up the pole, wrote briefs advising the government that it could be justified.

We have overwhelming evidence that torture was used and ex Vice President Dick Cheney continues to justify it. So what are Holder and Obama waiting for if there is no dispute about the facts? If the Watergate cover up could end in prison terms for senior White House appointees why not for the far more serious crimes of the Bush Administration?

If the US were a ratified member of the International Criminal Court, given the lack of prosecutions by domestic courts, it would by now have been investigated and its suspects prosecuted, just as war criminals from Rwanda, Serbia and the Congo have been. (Their governments were brave enough to sign up to the ICC and open themselves to taking the rap.) But the US has refused to belong and even if it had signed up, being a member of the UN Security Council, it could have squashed a prosecution.

America under Obama goes its own way, ignoring its own laws and treaties it has accepted on human rights. Most seriously it has ignored its membership of the UN Convention Against Torture whose ratification President Ronald Reagan pushed through the Senate and whose commitments about outlawing torture were as explicit as any document can be. People forget that at the time there was a malicious Cold War where prizing secrets out of enemy agents was a full time job, but the US did not stoop so low as to use torture. (However, it did under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson order the CIA to assassinate a handful of foreign potentates including Fidel Castro.)

To give Obama his due he has ordered that there will be no torture during his presidency and the White House doesn't rule out the possibility of one day signing up to the ICC. It now backs the Court up when it decides to issue an arrest warrant and prosecute. (It should be said that the Bush Administration while publically so hostile to the Court quietly did the same.)

How long will the name Guantanamo ring in our ears? Congress has run rings round Obama's one year deadline and the over complex way it has set about initiating bone fide prosecutions instead of indefinite detention without charge or trial. The most obvious way through the thicket would be to set up a regular civilian-run federal court on the Guantanamo base. Once Obama made the decision not to accept statements obtained by coercion and abuse the way should have been open to this.

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Compared with all this, Obama's other human rights activities seem relatively insignificant, but they remain important. Serious pressure on China is crucial, even if sensibly under President Bill Clinton the previous policy of using sanctions to change policy was dropped. China is too powerful to be bludgeoned by Washington whether it be on the use of torture or the exchange rate. But pressure can be wielded by standing up for the autonomy of Hong Kong and making sure that companies like Google don't sell their soul.

The same point can be made about Russia. Publically embarrass Russia before the world by all means when it steps over the line but don't expect a policy of sanctions or non-cooperation would help.

A final point: Obama could push Congress to ratify some UN treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of The Child. The US is one of only two countries that haven't ratified it.


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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