Obama’s Push for Human Rights

Geoffrey Robertson has a good piece in today’s Independent about President-elect Barack Obama’s potential to become a global human rights defender.  How will this impact relations with Russia?  He also points out the careful line Obama will have to tread in terms of international law to correct the many abuses of the Bush administration.

The Obama administration will have no difficulty in closing Guantanamo. But how can the US atone for the use of torture on Donald Rumsfeld’s watch? By ratifying the Torture Convention, for a start. And then by taking an initiative that would, for the first time, provide a meaningful safeguard for its prisoners of war, namely by waiving its right to confidentiality in Red Cross prison visitation reports.

The importance of such a step cannot be overestimated. Whenever Rumsfeld wasasked about treatment of prisoners, he would claim that they could notpossibly have been tortured because they were regularly visited by the RedCross. The truth, of course, was that they were treated inhumanely, as theRed Cross in fact reported. But because of its insistence uponconfidentiality, its reports were sent in utter secrecy to commandingofficers, who, in the case of Abu Ghraib, chose to ignore them -until one leaked to the Wall Street Journal.

Then there is the death penalty. The US, in the engaging company of Iran,China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, is one of the big five executioners. Obamacannot change his countrymen’s attachment to capital punishment: BillClinton had to sign the death warrant for an insane man, Ricky Roy Rector,to clear his path to the White House, and during this campaign Obama wasforced to promise that he would not interfere with some states’ plans toexecute child rapists. What he can do, however, is to use federal powers tostop the execution of foreign nationals who have been convicted in breach ofinternational law, usually by denying them consular access when arrested,contrary to the Vienna Convention. There has been a number of suchexecutions, condemned by the International Court of Justice and “regretted”by a Bush administration that did not lift a constitutional finger againstthem. There are more in the death row pipeline, and Professor Obama – formany years voted the best constitutional law lecturer at the University ofChicago – might find a way to stop states such as Texas putting his countryin breach of the law of nations.

One bad idea that gained traction from Democrats and Republicans in the courseof the election campaign was to replace the United Nation with anorganisation open only to democracies. There might, however, be some pointin creating an alliance that could deal with two rights which the UN hasproved utterly incapable of protecting, namely to representative governmentand to freedom of expression. The British Commonwealth has abjectly failedin these respects too. (See Fiji, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Singapore, etc.) AnAmerican-led alliance might succeed, at least in simple matters such asforcing the army dictatorship in Fiji to hold elections. (This could beachieved overnight, if the US, Australia and New Zealand combined tothreaten airline and football isolation.)

The Bush administration regarded international law as a set of rules thatapplied to other countries. Team Obama will want to engage with it: HaroldKoh, former assistant secretary for democracy and human rights, is predictedto be its first Supreme Court appointment; David Sheffer, Clinton’s warcrimes ambassador, is tipped to be Obama’s UN ambassador; Susan Rice andSamantha Power, who will both be important players in the newadministration, have in the past urged US action to stop genocide. They areunlikely to leave this task to ragtag UN peacekeepers from poor countries,who go nervously and without proper equipment to places such as Darfur andthe Congo where there is no peace to keep.