Restoring U.S. Credibility on Human Rights

Vol. 35 No. 4

By

John Shattuck is CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and a lecturer on U.S. foreign policy at Tufts University. He is the author of Freedom on Fire. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 1993 to 1998, and Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 1998 to 2000.

Among the many challenges facing you from the time you take office will be how to restore U.S. credibility in the world. One way to do this will be to change the global perception that the United States is a human rights violator.

International public opinion of the recent U.S. record on human rights has been devastating. A poll conducted last year in eighteen countries on all continents by the British Broadcasting Corporation revealed that 67 percent disapproved of U.S. detention practices in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Another poll in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, and India found that majorities or pluralities condemned the United States for torture and other violations of international law. A third poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations showed that majorities in thirteen countries, including many traditional allies, believe “the U.S. cannot be trusted to act responsibly in the world.”

Less than a decade ago, the situation was quite different. A 1999 survey published by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Research showed that the United States was viewed favorably by large majorities in France, 62 percent; Germany, 78 percent; Indonesia, 75 percent; and Turkey, 52 percent; among others. This positive climate of opinion helped produce the outpouring of international support immedi-ately following the 9/11 attacks that made it possible for this country to quickly assemble a broad coalition with United Nations (UN) approval to respond to the terrorist attacks by striking al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan.

Seven years later, global support for U.S. leadership has evaporated. In nearly all the countries that registered strong support for the United States in 1999, a big downward shift of opinion had occurred by 2006. In France it was down to 39 percent; in Germany, 37 percent; and in Indonesia, 30 percent. A separate survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed extremely hostile attitudes toward the United States throughout the Arab and Muslim world: In Egypt, the United States polled 70 percent negative; in Pakistan, 73 percent negative; in Jordan, 85 percent negative; and in Turkey, 88 percent negative.

The gap between America’s values and actions revealed by this polling data has severely eroded U.S. global influence. How can you and your administration gain it back?

First, you should make it clear that one of our country’s bedrock principles is the international rule of law. Human rights are de-fined and protected by the Constitution and international treaties ratified and incorporated into our domestic law. In flaunting basic rules—such as habeas corpus, the Convention against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions—the previous administration created a series of “law-free zones.” Within these zones, detainees were abused, thousands were held indefinitely without charges, and human rights were trampled.

Second, you should bring U.S. values and practices back into alignment. The United States in recent years has lost credibility by charging others with the types of human rights violations that it has committed itself. In recent annual country reports on human rights practices, the State Department has criticized other countries for engaging in torture, detention without trial, warrantless electronic surveillance, and other abuses, even though the U.S. record in these areas also has been abysmal.

Fortunately, history shows that U.S. credibility on human rights can be restored when our government’s policies reflect our na-tion’s values. A series of bipartisan initiatives during five recent presidencies––three Republican and two Democratic––illustrates the point.

President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Accords, paving the way for international recognition of the cause of human rights inside the Soviet bloc. President Jimmy Carter mobilized democratic governments to press for the release of political prisoners by repressive regimes. President Ronald Reagan signed the Con-vention against Torture and persuaded a Republican-dominated Senate to ratify it. President George H. W. Bush joined with other governments in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to nurture new democracies and respect for human rights following the end of the Cold War. And President Bill Clinton worked with NATO and the UN to implement the Genocide Conven-tion and bring an end to the human rights catastrophe in the Balkans.

Mr. President, you can restore U.S. influence by reconnecting the nation’s values and policies on human rights and the rule of law. Among the initiatives that you might take are the following.

Human Rights Law Enforcement. You should announce that the United States is bound by the human rights treaties and con-ventions that it has ratified and adopted as domestic law, including the Geneva Conventions, the Torture Convention, and the Interna-tional Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. You should follow through with your commitment to close the detention center at Guan-tanamo and transfer detainees to this country for determinations whether to try them in U.S. courts or release them. Fully complying with the Geneva Conventions would not preclude the United States from trying detainees in military commissions under constitutional standards of due process, nor would it restrict the government’s authority to conduct lawful interrogations to obtain intelligence in-formation about terrorist activities.

Truth Commission. At times in our recent history, the nation has created high-level commissions to probe national crises and recommend ways to prevent them in the future. In the area of human rights, these bodies have included, most notably, the Kerner Commission on race in the 1960s and the commission in the 1980s on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The recent commission on the events of 9/11 had a comparable scope and impact in addressing a complex and far-reaching national crisis. A similar commission could be established to compile the record of human rights abuses in the War on Terror.

U.S. Commission on Human Rights. A permanent institution could be created to monitor the U.S. government’s compliance with its legal obligations on human rights. I urge you to endorse legislation pending in Congress that would establish a United States Commission on Human Rights with oversight authority and subpoena power. The legislation would require the executive branch to provide regular reports to the commission on its implementation of international human rights treaties such as the Torture Convention and the Geneva Conventions.

Counterterrorism Assistance. The United States could provide assistance to other countries for counterterrorism operations that comply with basic standards on human rights. “Fighting terror” has become a convenient excuse for repressive regimes around the world to engage in further repression, often leading to more terrorism in an increasing cycle of violence. To break this cycle, this country could provide assistance and training to foreign military and law enforcement personnel in methods of fighting terrorism within the rule of law.

Democracy and Human Rights Assistance. The United States should find appropriate ways to support those seeking to promote the rule of law, democracy, and human rights within their own countries. Democracy and human rights activists are the shock troops in the struggle against terrorism. But democracy and human rights can never be delivered from the barrel of a gun. Assistance to those working to build their own democratic societies must be carefully planned, sustained over time, and based on a thorough understand-ing of the unique circumstances and profound differences among cultures, religions, and countries. The new administration should work within a multilateral framework to assist those struggling around the world to bring democracy and human rights to their own societies.

Responsibility to Protect. The United States should join with other countries, alliances, and international organizations to pre-vent or stop crimes against humanity and genocide. Mr. President, you could invoke the Doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, to work with other leaders to develop effective multilateral methods of preventing human rights catastrophes such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Darfur. Diplomatic and economic tools should be employed first to head off im-pending genocides, but multilateral military intervention must remain available under international law if other means have been ex-hausted.

By recommitting the United States to a foreign policy conducted within a framework of human rights and the rule of law, Presi-dent Obama, you can restore America’s moral leadership in the world, and, by doing so, strengthen U.S. national security.

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