Empty Promises?

Obama's Hesitant Embrace of Human Rights

After eight years of the Bush administration, with its torture of suspected terrorists and disregard for international law, Barack Obama's victory in the November 2008 U.S. presidential election seemed a breath of fresh air to human rights activists. Obama took office at a moment when the world desperately needed renewed U.S. leadership. In his inaugural address, Obama immediately signaled that, unlike Bush, he would reject as false "the choice between our safety and our ideals."

Obama faces the challenge of restoring the United States' credibility at a time when repressive governments -- emboldened by the increasing influence of authoritarian powers such as China and Russia -- seek to undermine the enforcement of international human rights standards. As he put it when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States cannot "insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves." His Nobel speech in Oslo also affirmed the U.S. government's respect for the Geneva Conventions. "Even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules," Obama argued, "I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength."

When it comes to promoting human rights at home and abroad, there has undoubtedly been a marked improvement in presidential rhetoric. However, the translation of those words into deeds remains incomplete.

AN INCOMPLETE REVERSAL

Obama moved rapidly to reverse the most abusive aspects of the Bush administration's approach to fighting terrorism. Two days after taking office, he insisted that all U.S. interrogators, including those from the CIA, abide by the stringent standards adopted by the U.S. military in the wake of the Abu Ghraib debacle. He also ordered the shuttering of all secret CIA detention facilities, where many suspects "disappeared" and were tortured between 2001 and 2008. Finally, he promised to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year.

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