At the local level, Americans are demonstrating a strong commitment to advancing human rights. In recent elections, voters legalized marriage equality in three states and passed the DREAM Act to expand educational opportunities for undocumented residents in Maryland. In addition, legislators in four states abolished the death penalty. The message to the nation's leaders seems to be this: human rights still matter, and the task of "perfecting our union" remains incomplete.
As President Obama prepares to give his second inaugural address, he should embrace an ambitious rights agenda: enhancing our security without trampling on human rights; implementing a foreign policy that hold friends and foes alike accountable for human rights violations; and ensuring human rights for all in the United States without discrimination.
Measured against international norms and his own aspirations, President Obama's first term record on human rights merits an "incomplete." While he made the bold move of issuing an executive order to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, he has yet to fulfill that promise. The U.S. government's reliance on lethal drone strikes is growing steadily, but the administration has provided no clear legal justification for the program. Congress has abrogated its responsibility to exercise meaningful oversight of this most ubiquitous element of the "global war on terror," a paradigm which is in and of itself problematic. Although President Obama has on occasion stood up for human rights defenders abroad -- in China, Iran, Russia and Libya -- his administration has often muted criticism when it comes to U.S. allies, in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
And even on the home front, President Obama's human rights legacy is far from assured, with women's rights, immigrants' rights and tackling discrimination all stacked in the "unfinished" pile.
A NOBEL-WORTHY AGENDA
President Obama -- whose 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was granted as much for what he might accomplish as for what he had accomplished -- has four years left to build a worthy legacy of respect for human rights at home and abroad.
In 2008, candidate Obama called the Guantanamo Bay detention center "a dark chapter in American history." Four years later, he renewed his pledge to shutter the offshore detention facility, but then failed to veto the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which greatly complicates his ability do so. Today, 166 men remain jailed at Guantánamo, most held without charge, all denied fair trials. There has been virtually no accountability for torture and other human rights violations committed against detainees. U.S. authorities have cleared 55 of the detainees for transfer: men like Shaker Aamer, who has languished in prison for 10 years, despite his country, the United Kingdom, expressing a willingness to welcome him home.
The president should promptly order the release of those detainees, including Shaker Aamer, whom the United States has no intention of prosecuting. As for the rest, his administration must find ways either to charge and try them fairly in federal court, or free them into the United States or any safe alternative. The United States cannot sustain its credibility as a defender of human rights abroad when it violates such a fundamental international human rights norm.
The U.S. government has relied increasingly on drones to kill terror suspects. According to some reports, nearly 2,500 people have been killed in 300 drone strikes since Obama took office. U.S. drone attacks have doubled overall in Pakistan during the Obama administration, and drones are also being used far afield, from Yemen to Libya. The nomination of John Brennan to be the nation's next director of the Central Intelligence Agency gives Congress a chance to ask some tough questions, including: what will he do to ensure that the U.S. government's use of drones conforms to international laws that govern the use of lethal force?
The rights of women and girls in Afghanistan need to be protected as NATO prepares for its 2014 withdrawal. Women in the region face torture and even death simply for defending their right to live with dignity. One of the best ways the United States can assist Afghanistan in preparing for the challenges ahead is to ensure women's rights to political participation and invest in the people, administrative systems and physical infrastructure needed to promote justice, equality and freedom for all.
EQUAL FOREIGN POLICY
The United States should adhere to its international obligations and support UN human rights mechanisms. President Obama should drop the double standards when it comes to standing up for human rights abroad. Washington should tell Paris that it does not condone the forcible evictions of Roma minorities. In the Middle East, the administration is reluctant to criticize the leaders of Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, for example, at a time when it must rely on these states to advance U.S. policy objectives on Iran and Syria. Similar logic appears to be behind the administration's failure to challenge the assault on civil society and rights activists in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. But banking on the long-term success of allies that arrest people for tweeting and deny equal rights to women and ethnic and religious minorities is foolhardy.
IN THE UNITED STATES
Stark racial disparities persist in housing, health care, employment, education and the criminal justice system. These too are human rights issues, and President Obama's leadership is crucially needed to address them. There needs to be a commitment at the highest level of government to uphold human rights domestically, including by addressing discrimination within the criminal justice system: enacting a federal law barring racial profiling in law enforcement, appointing a blue-ribbon commission on mass incarceration, ending harsh conditions in "supermaximum" security prisons, adopting stricter limits on the use of Taser devises, ending the practice of juvenile life without parole and by leading the United States away from the death penalty.
Furthermore, President Obama should lead a sometimes dysfunctional Congress to continue its work to "perfect our union" by advancing the rights of women, immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. In its final hours, a politically divided 112th Congress failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) for the first time in eighteen years, leaving some vulnerable, including Native American women who are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general U.S. female population. The president should remind Congress that every woman is entitled to protection from violence, regardless of race, class, religion, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.
As for immigrant rights, the president should urge Congress to take a lesson from Maryland and pass a Federal DREAM Act to allow young people brought to this country as children to pursue their education without fear of deportation. This would be an important step towards more comprehensive immigration reform, rooted in respect for the human rights of all immigrants. And when it comes to marriage equality, the president should continue his "evolution" and work with Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and provide marriage equality for all Americans.
It is time to put human rights at the center of the United States' domestic and international political agendas. Ratification of all international human rights treaties and protocols is essential, as is taking concrete steps to help the United States live up to its human rights obligations at home.
The president's second term is just about to begin. Here's hoping he's willing to do what it takes to turn his incomplete into an A (or at least a solid B...
).and earn that Nobel prize.
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