Those who watched Barack Obama take office on 20 January were part of a far-reaching celebration of the once seemingly impossible becoming reality. From isolated villages to sprawling cities, millions of people felt included in the new President’s message of hope and the possibility of change.
In his inaugural address, President Obama rejected as “false” the choice between safety and respect for human rights. He moved swiftly to turn words into action, issuing three executive orders that held the promise of an end to some of the most contentious policies of the past administration’s “war on terror”.
He ordered the closure within a year of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, symbol of the previous government’s disregard for human rights.
He ordered the CIA to close any long-term detention facilities it was operating, and prohibited it from operating such facilities in the future.
He banned the harshest techniques used by the CIA in its secret detention programme, a programme in which enforced disappearance and torture – both crimes under international law – have been committed.
Amnesty International will campaign to ensure that measures to implement these changes fully comply with the USA’s international obligations.
As the new President recognized, there is much work to be done. This is only the start of a long overdue process.
President Obama ordered the Secretary of Defense to review conditions of detention in Guantánamo. But the isolation and harsh conditions of reduced sensory stimulation endured by detainees at Guantánamo mirror conditions in some of the USA’s harshest “supermaximum” security prisons.
The federal authorities should review such conditions on the US mainland and ensure that no one is subjected to cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment.
There must also be accountability for human rights violations committed by or on behalf of the US authorities – whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, or in the secret detention programme. With the requisite political will and independent oversight, the damage to the rule of law and respect for human rights can be repaired.
At his inauguration, President Obama reaffirmed fundamental values and principles enshrined in international law, including the "promise that all are equal... and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness".
The truth is that the USA, one of the most prosperous countries in the world, still has millions of its citizens living in poverty. Stark racial disparities persist in housing, health care, employment, education and the criminal justice system.
More than half of the 46 million people in the USA who have no medical insurance belong to racial or ethnic minorities. Two thirds of those without insurance have incomes near or below the Federal Poverty Level.
President Obama’s pledge to raise the quality of health care and lower its cost should be applauded as an important step, but it must be backed by practical measures and adequate funding to ensure universal access to health care.
Ill-treatment in police custody and jails remains a serious concern in many areas, as does the increasing use of electro-shock weapons such as Tasers in US law enforcement. Tasers have been linked to dozens of deaths in recent years. Amnesty International has called on the federal government to broaden its ongoing inquiry into fatalities and for the use of such weapons to be suspended or limited to situations where they are necessary to protect life and avoid the use of firearms.
Racial minorities are disproportionately the victims of police brutality, harassment and unlawful shootings. Black men remain 6.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men and black women are incarcerated at three times the rate of white women.
The new administration must urgently address the causes of such disparities and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. It is vital that President Obama’s promise to ban racial profiling by law enforcement agencies is effectively implemented.
The death penalty, racism and deprivation are inextricably interlinked. The vast majority of the more than 3,000 people on death row are too poor to pay for legal representation, and numerous studies have shown that race, particularly the race of the murder victim, influences the application of the death penalty.
Since 1990 more than 1,000 men and women have been put to death by the state. The new administration should lead the country away from this cruel, inhuman and degrading practice by announcing a moratorium on federal executions.
Women of all races and social classes in the USA face the threat of domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse. But for Native American and Alaska Native women the risks are greater; they are more than 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in the USA. Full enforcement and funding of the Violence Against Women Act could help tackle the scourge of such violence.
The new administration also needs to show leadership in ending discrimination against lesbians, gay men and bisexual and transgender people. Measures to ensure people are not criminalized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity should be part of comprehensive legislative reforms aimed at ensuring that the human rights of all are respected, without discrimination.
The government must also do more to address the human rights of migrants, including the lack of due process for non-US citizens in deportation proceedings; indefinite and mandatory detention policies; and the inhumane conditions under which many immigration detainees, including asylum seekers, continue to be held.
On the international front, the USA’s reputation has been damaged by its flouting of international law and its failure to engage constructively with UN human rights mechanisms. This can easily be remedied.
Among other things, the new administration should:
ratify all core international human rights treaties and protocols, and withdraw limiting conditions on treaties it has promised to uphold;
ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC);
re-engage with the Human Rights Council;
promote respect for human rights in its bilateral relations with other countries.
One welcome measure already taken by the new administration was to lift the “global gag rule”, the ban on federal funding for international organizations that provide or advocate reproductive health services, including safe, legal abortions.
Amnesty International calls on the new administration to remove remaining restrictions and increase funding for programmes addressing reproductive health, maternal health and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS/HIV.
In relation to the ongoing tragedy in Darfur, the USA has been a strong voice for the millions of victims of the conflict. But it can and should do more. It should provide funding and equipment to the peacekeeping effort. It should strengthen the arms embargo and support the ICC. It must oppose attempts to defer the case brought by the ICC against President al Bashir.
In response to the Middle East and the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, the USA should support a UN fact-finding mission to carry out a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of allegations of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by all parties during the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel. It should impose a full arms embargo on both sides and place human rights at the centre of efforts to revive the Middle East peace process.
Such responses to these and other international crises would signal the “new era of responsibility” promised by President Obama.
The outpouring of support for Barack Obama’s election and his first executive orders reaffirms the enduring hope for a world in which the values embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, crafted by the USA and others over 60 years ago, are once again at the centre of the US domestic and international political agendas.