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Joanne Mariner

A Short List of Human Rights Reforms for the Next President


Monday, Nov. 03, 2008

The presidential candidate whom we elect tomorrow (or whom voters in Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania and a few other key states elect) will face immediate and urgent challenges. He will need to address a badly faltering economy, a grim and costly war in Iraq, a worsening conflict in Afghanistan, and a burgeoning national debt that recently crossed the $10 trillion mark.

He will also take office at a time when Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are synonymous with human rights abuse, and U.S. authority on human rights issues is largely negative. (In recent years, it has been abusive governments that cite the U.S.'s example, and not for reasons we would like.)

Reforms are needed on several fronts. Three areas that stand out are counterterrorism policy, relations with other governments, and U.S. exceptionalism. Below are a few of Human Rights Watch's recommendations for change.

Transform Counterterrorism Policy

The Bush Administration's consistent disregard for human rights in fighting terrorism has been disastrous for the global human rights cause, diminishing America's moral standing and setting a powerful negative example for abusive governments around the world. Undoing the damage will require a high-profile, public commitment to a new course, and bold steps toward reform.

In order to signal to the nation and to the world that his administration will ensure that US counterterrorism policy is consistent with the country's basic values, the next president should make the following key changes:

  • Close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, prosecuting any detainees implicated in terrorism in U.S. federal courts, and sending the others to their home countries or appropriate countries of resettlement, including the United States.
  • Reject preventive detention (detention without trial) as an alternative to prosecuting terrorism suspects.
  • Reject the "global war on terrorism" as a legal basis for detaining individuals outside of traditional armed conflicts.
  • Put a definitive end to the CIA's detention program, by which terrorist suspects were "disappeared," cut off from contact with anyone but their jailors and interrogators, and subjected to brutal treatment.
  • Stop renditions (unregulated returns) of terrorism suspects to countries where they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
  • Ensure the establishment of a nonpartisan investigatory commission ("truth commission"), equipped with subpoena powers, to investigate and publicly report on post-9/11 counterterrorism-related abuses, recommend how those responsible should be held accountable, and specify steps to ensure that such abuses are never repeated.

Reassert Human Rights as a Priority in Relations with Other Governments

For eight years, the Bush Administration has claimed to promote democracy and freedom, while failing to assert a broader human rights agenda. Its criticisms of human rights abuses have been strongest with respect to longtime adversaries like Iran and Cuba, as well as countries of little strategic importance, such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma. Its voice has been far quieter when it comes to close US allies like Egypt and Pakistan.

This selective approach to exerting pressure in response to human rights violations has severely undermined U.S. credibility and encouraged abusive governments. It is time for a more consistent approach: one in which the promotion of human rights is not last on the list of strategic goals.

A few examples of the countries where essential change in US policy is needed are:

  • Pakistan, where the Bush Administration uncritically supported President Pervez Musharraf as he staged fraudulent elections, attacked the judiciary, and conducted an abusive and ineffectual counterterrorism campaign. The next US president should insist on full restoration of an independent judiciary and the rule of law, and should pressure the Pakistani military and intelligence services to end and resolve "disappearances," including those in which the U.S. government is itself implicated.
  • Russia, where other strategic interests made the US government reluctant to criticize the country's deteriorating human rights situation. While the Bush Administration has now adopted a different tone, the next president should develop a strategy with other states to challenge Russia's repression of free expression, association, and assembly, to promote civil society and a free media, and to push for accountability for abuses in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Georgia.
  • Afghanistan, where the US government has failed to make a sufficient commitment to protect civilians from abuses by warlords and from armed conflict. The next US president should take immediate steps to reduce civilian casualties in military operations, press President Karzai and the Afghan government to crack down on corruption and marginalize warlords, and ensure that US aid promotes progress for women's rights, including equal access to schooling for girls at all levels.
  • Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, where the United States supplies considerable military and economic assistance yet is reluctant to criticize human rights violations. The next president should address, in public as well as through diplomatic channels, serious human rights abuses by all governments and non-state actors in the region.

End U.S. Exceptionalism

The Bush Administration has pursued a policy of exceptionalism that extended to the international human rights and humanitarian law framework. By refusing to ratify important and long-standing human rights treaties, and failing to promote international justice, the United States undermined the cause of global human rights and accountability.

The next president should reverse course by taking the following immediate steps:

  • Bring US policy in line with the 2008 treaty to ban cluster munitions, and urge the Senate to ratify both the Cluster Munitions Treaty and the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty as soon as possible.
  • Urge the Senate to ratify key human rights treaties that are broadly accepted by the international community, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
  • Support investigations and prosecutions by the International Criminal Court (ICC); seek repeal of the American Service-Members' Protection Act of 2002, and begin steps to join the Rome Statute of the ICC.

Joanne Mariner is an attorney at Human Rights Watch in New York. Her analysis is adapted from Human Rights Watch's "Human Rights Agenda for the New Administration."

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