On a freezing January day in 2009, President Obama stood at the Capitol Building laying out his presidential vision and telling the world that the United States was ready to lead once more. Eight years later, the United States’—and his—record on human rights is decidedly murky. Beginning today, he has 100 days left in office to set that record straight.
In a letter to the president today, Amnesty International USA has set out three things President Obama can do to help secure his human rights legacy: close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, stop sending arms to countries that use them to commit war crimes and human rights violations, and grant protection to those fleeing violence in Central America.
Amnesty International USA is mobilizing its 1.2 million grassroots supporters in the U.S. to push President Obama to prioritize human rights during his last days in office. They will urge the president to make good on the ever-narrowing window of opportunity to be the president he set out to be and elevate human rights as a priority before his departure. Each of the actions Amnesty is asking the president to take is achievable and would bolster the U.S.’s global leadership on human rights in a time of conflict and crisis.
First, though the president and his administration have made significant headway this year in resettling and moving the men who are languishing in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, 61 still remain. None of these men have been convicted of a crime in federal court, despite being held for as many as 14 years.
If President Obama fails to close Guantánamo, it is all too likely that the prison will remain open indefinitely, no matter who succeeds him. With the possibility of greater U.S. military engagement in Iraq, Syria and a growing list of other countries, it’s all too possible that the next president will use Guantánamo to hold hundreds of new prisoners—for decades more, until “the end” of an endless, global war on terrorism. We cannot allow the incarceration of people without charge or trial to become a permanent practice, an ugly parallel universe to the U.S. criminal justice system.
Guantánamo remains an international symbol of injustice and torture to this day, and undermines U.S. credibility on the global stage. The president knows this, which is why he issued an executive order to close it his first week in office. This is work he cannot leave unfinished.
Second, President Obama must address the human rights crisis at our doorstep. Stark homicide rates, ineffective legal structures and corrupt law enforcement officials have forced many people to flee their homes in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to seek refuge in Mexico and here in the U.S. The situation in the Northern Triangle is dire, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has deemed it a humanitarian crisis. However, not only does the U.S. deny the asylum claims of many people seeking refuge, our government them sends them back directly to the countries from which they fled.
President Obama can help. He has the power to protect women, men and children who have fled unimaginable violence—and he must take action urgently, by ensuring that people who have fled Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are treated with compassion as they try to rebuild their lives safely. He can do that with a stroke of the pen, by designating all three countries for Temporary Protective Status, which would protect these men, women and children from being returned to ongoing humanitarian crises. This is an opportunity to show leadership in addressing this regional crisis, and Obama’s action could protect an estimated 1.2 million people.
Finally, Egypt, Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East have engaged in widespread repression and violations of human rights. The U.S. has continued to sell weapons and provide military assistance to these governments despite evidence that such arms have been used to commit human rights violations.
The administration’s recent decisions to provide more than $2 billion arms to Saudi Arabia have come amid worldwide condemnation of bombing and other actions by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that have resulted in many civilian casualties. These arms deals risk making the U.S. government complicit in further Saudi-led assaults on civilians. They also violate the president’s own policy directive on arms sales and provide thousands of bombs and warheads to a government that unlawfully targets civilians. The president must take stronger action to ensure that U.S. military aid and arms sales do not support war crimes or human rights violations.
When the U.S. failed to live up to its ideals by torturing prisoners and detaining them indefinitely without charge or trial, it signaled to other governments that the door to human rights abuses had opened wide. Clear and decisive leadership from President Obama on the issues described above will help restore a portion of the United States’ sorely battered credibility as a champion of human rights, and set an example to spur global recommitment to finding solutions that respect the rights of all.
As the president said himself in Cairo in 2009, “Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”
President Obama has 100 days left to be the president he set out to be in 2009 – a president that advances human and civil rights, not one who shortchanges them.
Mr. President, now is your final chance to act boldly.
Margaret Huang is the executive director for Amnesty International USA.