Obama and the Human Rights Movement at 60
December 10, 2008
Over the last several weeks, I have interviewed nearly two dozen activists, scholars and critics of the human rights movement for an article that will appear in the April issue of the foreign policy journal, The Washington Quarterly.
In these interviews, several leaders of the HR movement said to me “we need a new strategy” -- one that will take human rights from the margins to the mainstream.
What would that strategy look like?
In this brief podcast, I can only touch on a few issues, and in the article this spring, just a few more. But I suspect we will be hearing more about this topic in the months and years to come. In fact, it may well be the most important issue that the movement needs to address before the 65th or 70th anniversary roles around. Whatever the answer, the policies of the United States will either be part of the problem or part of the solution.
I. Thirty-six days before the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the United States elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama. This election fulfills a dream of the civil rights movement, a struggle that relied as much on the Universal Declaration as on the courage of the men and women who for decades fought to make the United States a “more perfect union.”
While the 60th anniversary is passing largely unnoticed by most policy makers and the general public, human rights activists, lawyers in particular, make a convincing case that the Universal Declaration is a living document – helping to establish international judicial bodies around the world that enforce human rights. The declaration is the first of several important texts codifying human rights, and grounding it in the concept of universality: it applies to all human beings. This document in many ways gave rise to the movement that today pressures states all over the world to be compliant with human rights. In fact, it has shaped our own political arc.
The Truman administration, in filing its amicus brief to the Supreme Court concerning Brown v. the Board of Education, made this extraordinary appeal to the Court arguing that racial segregation was undermining U.S. foreign policy. “During the past six years, the damage to our foreign relations attributable to this source has become progressively greater….Soviet spokesmen regularly exploit this situation in propaganda against the United States, both within the United Nations and through radio broadcasts and the press, which reaches all corners of the world.”
Sounds a tad too familiar. In fact, we hear echoes of that same complaint today when talking about the negative impact of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo on U.S soft power.
Obama’s election came after eight years of declining U.S. leadership in human rights and international law. Rightly or wrongly, many I spoke with defined this recent period by the relative ease with which the prohibition against torture was abandoned, not by dictators in the far corners of the earth, but by policy makers in Washington.
And that’s not all. As America’s global leadership declined, evidence suggests that China and Russia have been increasingly able to set the table concerning the rule of law, advancing a conception of hyper-sovereignty that challenges decades of international law.
II. Many believe the Obama administration can play a pivotal role in opting back in to the human rights regime. A leading American legal scholar told me recently “the U.S. has been the balance wheel of the system for 60 years but has not been for the last seven years. If the U.S. is not the balance wheel there is no balance wheel.”
In order to regain that role, Obama needs a “cadre” of senior leaders to advance and implement the Obama human rights agenda, beginning with closing Guantánamo and the prohibition of detention without charge and torture.
One HR leader suggested to me that this team should also produce an action plan that articulates how the focus on human rights advances U.S. national interests “for key bilateral relationships.”
The European Council on Foreign Relations has suggested the Obama administration might work with allies toward a new EU-US joint statement on human rights as it relates to counterterrorism. Maybe we would also see the Obama team articulate along with Europeans what human rights means practically in the 21st century—from state’s responsibility to protect against genocide to provisions against poverty, to the development of a robust international witness protection regime.
The Obama team might lead the United States in the growing accountability movement—a movement that makes increasingly clear the connections between how states and societies reconcile or not with violent episodes of their past and their own political development. In the United States, we might see more and better memoralization to those who struggled against slavery, and link that struggle and those people with the fight against trafficking that continues today.
Some suggest the Obama team will need to account for the abuses of the recent era. At a minimum, these human rights leaders are looking to see the Obama team take seriously the idea of addressing human rights inside the United States as well as outside.
New structures might be needed -- such as a “repair shop” inside the National Security Council that would not only coordinate policy concerning closing Guantánamo but oversee what many of us are calling “the opt-back-in agenda.” But this is less about architecture and organizational charts and more about political will.
Unusual coalitions inside the government might form to advance this Obama human rights agenda. Counterintelligence officers may welcome the shift from reliance on detention without charge and unreliable, abusive interrogation techniques. Uniformed service members will likely be relieved by increased compliance with human rights.
III. There are many who will think that the focus on human rights may well seem overly ambitious in an era of unprecedented economic crisis and two wars. At a minimum, the vision that many human rights activists have appears to compete with numerous other strategic agendas including arms control and relations with Iran or Russia.
And until the human rights community in the United States can make a strategic argument about the inherent dangers for national security that come from overlooking absent or corrupt rule of law, until it can articulate the security implications of human rights abuse, until it can show the predictive qualities of these abuses for international instability --- it will face an uphill battle.
Yet in some small way, the extreme damage caused by the Bush administration created a bipartisan agenda around issues such as closing Guantánamo and the dangers of torture that can and should be cultivated. For sure, greater demand for human rights must come from the American public—not just a handful of activists.
Years from now, either the last eight years will look like some temporary aberration, a momentary retreat in the wave that is the human rights movement, or, this recent period will be seen as the beginning of worse things to come. One could say the same about American power.