Renewing the American Focus on Human Rights

07/09/2010 05:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Much like the flowers in the Peter, Paul and Mary song, human rights as a core ingredient of U.S. policy is also gone. Mentioned rarely by the Obama administration and mocked by the Bush administration, the high standard of human rights once demanded by U.S. policymakers seems to have died. It has been lost in the prisons of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, smothered by the debris of the drone strikes and mocked by the continual use of enhanced interrogation methods.

Recently, a French poll found that 42% of the French population is concerned that human rights all over the world are deteriorating, and 72% of the population considers the present economic crisis as an upfront threat for human rights. These figures signal a change in the West.

During the days of the Cold War, the United States played the 'good guys' and attacked the human rights abuses committed by the USSR and other countries. We considered our democracy the perfect solution to extending human rights to all citizens, and looked to our government to promote global human rights using the standard we ourselves had set. Since the demise of the USSR in 1991, human rights issues have largely disappeared from the media. As governments have moved away from human rights as a foundational policy issue, the media has followed suit, and human rights issues are no longer a focus in the forum of international and domestic politics.

The United States was not perfectly vigilant in its attempts to set an international standard for human rights. Few seem to remember that when over 300,000 people were killed in Central America in the 1980's, our government looked the other way. Reagan's way of 'helping' was to illegally funnel weapons to Nicaragua in order to help the Contras fight the Sandanistas. Our government treated Mandela and the ANC as communists, and ignored the terrible bloodshed that came as a result of the racial upheaval occurring in South Africa.

Many hoped for a renewed focus on the issue of human rights when President Clinton took office in 1992. Yet he failed to grant Haitian refugees asylum and forcefully prevented many Haitians from entering the country. His administrations similarly failed to take control of the disastrous human rights crises occurring in Somalia and Bosnia. He prevented the United States from the joining the International Criminal Court (ICC); arguably paving the way for George W. Bush to later circumvent human rights statutes and order the use of enhanced interrogation methods in the war on terror.

Fortunately, other countries have not followed the recent American model of neglecting human rights. Latin America has done an admirable job of chasing its human rights violators. Peru has jailed a former President. Chile chased Pinochet until he died. Argentina has sent its former military people to jail for violations of the unionists. The ICC just convicted two Serbs for killings in Sabrenica. A British Prime Minister apologized for the killings of Bloody Sunday, made famous by the song of the same name by U-2. The pursuit of justice is alive in other parts of the world.

Somehow, the pretense that the United States is a promoter of human rights is alive and well under the Obama administration. In Oslo, Obama lectured the world on the meaning of a 'just war,' as though the wars we are currently engaged in are in some way driven by a desire to expand global human rights.

The Democrats have another three years to right this situation. Because both Clinton and Obama are responsible for the neglect and thus demise of human rights as a focus of U.S. foreign policy, the Democratic Party should take it to heart that human rights, once again, need to be at the foundation of foreign policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently delivered a searing and profound speech in China saying, among other things, that women's rights are human rights. The citizens of the world await and would welcome a renewed focus and movement promoting human rights from our government. Obama promised it. He will be judged by history if this promise is not kept. Deeds are needed, not rhetoric.

It is a simple question: why not investigate the torturers and those who approved of it during the Bush administration? The law, both domestic and international, demands that criminals be pursued. The rights of the victims need to be protected against further abuse. Searching for and prosecuting violators of prisoners' human rights would help alert those who torture that there are consequences. Or, because of its military might, can the United States simply change the rules, namely, to redefine torture to protect its own torturers?

Why is it that Gitmo is still alive and well? Why is it that the use of drones has had no real discussion on American television? This new, cheap and deadly device of death needs careful review and consideration. There must be a public discussion of the use of drones. Who decides upon the targets and how the standards of accountability are drawn? How many innocent people have died due to a drone strike? How many missiles have been fired based on erroneous intelligence? Drone usage should be a new and separate part of the next annual human rights report issued by the State Department. The innocent have a right to life and a right to be at least remembered if taken by a drone strike. Names are important to history and families.

We of the human rights movement should also scrutinize ourselves. For the most part, human rights organizations have failed to bring the proper attention to the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld torturing policies. There were no mass demonstrations about torture. The world has the right to know why we slept so well in this period and did so little. It behooves the movement now to bring the violators of that period to justice. Questions need to be asked of how human rights groups are allocating any portion of their budgets to this effort. We must represent victims with courage, money and determination.

You may wonder why I do not bring up security issues with this blog or why I do not consider the truism 'we fight them there, so that they don't come here'. My answer is that this presentation of U.S. foreign policy is on television every day. My feeling is that these issues call forth fear, an unreasonable fear. I write with the belief that much more is to be gained from acting courageously.