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Obama Builds Trust and Respect for Human Rights in U.S.

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.

As the new
President recognized, there is much work to be done. This was only the start of
a long overdue process.

While Amnesty International welcomed these
initial steps, the administration’s record in carrying through reforms during
its first 100 days has been mixed. As described in its latest report, “Mixed
Messages”, Amnesty International remains concerned about the administration’s
policies on counter-terrorism detentions, as well as its failure to commit to
bringing US officials responsible for torture to justice.

There must
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

Counter terrorism policies are not Amnesty International’s only
human rights concerns on the USA - there are a range of domestic issues which
the organization has campaigned on for many years.

In some key areas –
such as civil rights protection, gender equality and health care – President
Obama has pledged that his administration will do more. Amnesty International
will continue campaign for full implementation of human rights standards,
including in the areas cited below.

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.

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 and there continue to be disturbing
cases, includings recent deaths of unarmed minors.

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

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.

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

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

The administration has said it plans to look for ways to
make legal status possible for millions of irregular immigrants. There is an
urgent need to address many aspects of 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 over the years has been
damaged by its flouting of international law and its failure to engage
constructively with UN human rights mechanisms. Amnesty International welcomes
the positive measures taken by the Obama administration to engage with the
international community, including through the United Nations.

organization is heartened by the USA’s willingness to participate in the Human
Rights Council , the UN’s principal human rights body, and to work with other
nations to improve its effectiveness.

Among other important measures,
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);
  • promote respect for human rights in its bilateral relations with other

Another welcome measure 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, including war crimes, 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


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