Just words?: Human rights and the White House

By Michelle Chen May 12, 2009

The United States took a seat today in the the U.N. Human Rights Council, thawing the chill set by the Bush administration between Washington and the world’s highest human rights body. Yet membership on the Council hardly guarantees progress on some of the toughest human rights issues now before the Obama administration. The fact that Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia were voted in as well foreshadows continued political gridlock, but some meaningful engagement might be on the horizon, too. The White House recently published a list of “Commitments and Pledges” on human rights, reaffirming that the government "commits to continuing its efforts in the UN system to be a strong advocate for all people around the world who suffer from abuse and oppression,” and “reaffirms that expressions of concern about the human rights situation in any country, our own included, are appropriate matters for international discussion.” The ACLU warns that opening the door to “discussion” won’t necessarily overturn entrenched double-standards in the government’s domestic and foreign policies. The word “torture,” for instance, is glaringly omitted from the White House pledges, as is any explicit reference to the role of the judiciary in addressing abuses of power. Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program stated that the Obama administration’s human rights policies are moving in a promising direction, “there is still much more to do, including the domestic implementation of human rights commitments and the creation of effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms." A quick glance at current events may offer a clearer picture of what needs to be on Obama’s human rights agenda as it takes a spot in a critical global dialogue. Chris Hedges examined America’s mission in Afghanistan and how the devastation of civilian populations shows that "we embody the barbarism we claim to be seeking to defeat." Amnesty International has issued a long list of domestic and international issues for the administration to take up, including torture prosecutions, indigenous people’s rights, reproductive health, and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Back in March, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Jorge Bustamante, put Washington’s failed immigration system in a universal-rights context:

"The current xenophobic climate adversely affects many sections of the migrant population, and has a particularly discriminatory and devastating impact on many of the most vulnerable groups in the migrant population, including children, unaccompanied minors, Haitian and other Afro-Caribbean migrants, and migrants who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. "…the United States has failed to adhere to its international obligations to make the human rights of the 37.5 million migrants living in the country… a national priority, using a comprehensive and coordinated national policy based on clear international obligations.”

In a Sunday New York Times commentary, former Czech President Vaclav Havel criticized the very structure of the Council, arguing that the flawed electoral process and political stagnation have diluted the body’s original mission of accountability and advocacy. And the Obama administration drew the ire of both the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and American activists for refusing to take part in the Durban Review Conference on racism and xenophobia. The pledges the White House submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council take up two pages. To make those words a reality, the Obama administration and grassroots activists will have to read a lot between the lines. Image: "Non Violence" at the United Nations, Fredrik Reuterswärd (Bowery Boys)