Obama needs to prioritize policies on human rights

By Eric Soble

Opinions Editor

While phrases  like “enemy combatant” and “war on terror” have become loathed by the Obama administration, these words—and the policies they represent—are still very alive in our political system. The President has not yet shut down Guantánamo Bay, an action he promised on his first day in office. He has not insisted on any investigation of the allegations of torture under the Bush administration. While we have moved forward as a country, it is dismaying to see these vestiges of a prior era so readily followed.

When President Obama visited Indonesia this month, he had a chance to speak clearly and frankly about the human rights abuses that have occurred under President Yudhoyono and the Kopassus, the military unit in Indonesia. He may not have engaged this topic for a number of reasons: it may not be strategic to bring up human rights concerns while trying to mend relations with the Muslim world. Such a discussion may put the President in an awkward place, as his administration recently lifted a ban on funding the Kopassus and currently aids their “anti-terrorist” activities.

But I wonder if his silence on human rights is not, in part, caused by the inherent hypocrisy of advocating for policies abroad that are not fully embraced at home. It certainly makes for a weak argument when any foreign official can quickly point to Abu Ghraib or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as evidence of the United States’ own violations of the law. This weakness was seen on Nov. 5, when the United Nations Human Rights Council showered the United States with allegations of human rights abuses in Geneva.

Even the new UN expert on torture, Juan Ernesto Méndez, has called for the Obama administration to investigate allegations of torture, saying “we haven’t seen much in the way of accountability.” This admonition comes just a week after the Justice Department excused all CIA operatives that had destroyed tapes of terrorist subjects undergoing “harsh interrogation techniques.”

All this makes me think: is this what we want on our record? Is this what we want broadcasted across the world? That old and warn idiom “all is fair in love and war” should not be a prescription for policy but an admonition of the atrocities that occur when everything becomes acceptable, and when the ends justify the means.

In George Bush’s new memoir, “Decision Points,” he admits to authorizing “enhanced interrogation techniques.” When asked whether to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he responded, “damn right.” The Department of Justice defines waterboarding as a form of torture. Thus, such an act is illegal under the federal anti-torture act. As the U.S. has historically defined water torture as a war crime—see the sentencing of Yukio Asano in 1947—it remains to be seen why this does not apply to our past president.

I do not have a personal vendetta against George Bush, nor do I wish to see him “suffer” because I disagree with his policies. This is about abiding by national and international convention. This is about applying the rule of law equally. This is about government accountable for actions.

If we are to be a nation committed to the rule of law, we must understand that an investigation into these allegations is both morally and legally necessary.

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