Obama: a new dawn for human rights?

So it’s Barack! Resisting the (slightly obsessive?) need-to-know-as-it-happens-ness of staying up all night, I only heard the result at 7.30 this morning on the news. (Though well done to ChrisChris for posting at 2.49am!)

In times gone by, in my own borderline obsessive way, I used to stay up all night listening to … live cricket commentary on Test Match Special. But these days I reckon knowing in the morning is good enough. Meanwhile, check out my “drive-by” YouTube video, recorded as election night fever was building last night!

But – and it’s a big but – whether this is actually a new dawn for human rights is I think, far, far from clear. (How long, to paraphrase Ian Curtis, before this new Obama dawn fades?) In a nutshell, I think we need to be extremely cautious with our expectations over the coming months. Being rather long in the tooth, I remember the hopes that swirled around at Amnesty 11 and a half years ago when a certain fresh-faced politician called Tony Blair cruised to election victory on a tide of national euphoria.

Yes, ok, we soon had the Human Rights Act (10 years old this weekend, by the way) and yes we had some good work done on the International Criminal Court and arms controls, but then came September 2001 and the prolonged attack on human rights that’s seen detention without trial at Belmarsh, tacit support for Guantánamo Bay and the push for 42 days.

All right, no question, Obama is a huge break with the past in many ways. I wouldn’t for a moment underestimate the significance of the Obama “story”, and how it can act as an inspiration to a whole generation of African Americans and indeed people of colour and ethnic minorities everywhere. See this Guardian feature on the so-called “Hamilton effect” (Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt, Lewis Hamilton, Barack Obama …).

But positive role models take things only so far. What President-elect Obama actually does is what matters in the end. And here we should, if you ask me, be very careful about judging things according to what actually happens, not what we hope is going to happen.

So, actions speak louder than words and Amnesty is already seeking a meeting with the president-to-be about what needs to be done. There is, to put it mildly, rather a lot that could and should be done to improve America’s very tarnished human rights record. To take just the three most obvious and pressing: (1) close Guantánamo, (2) take action against torture, and (3) allow an inquiry into abuses in the “war on terror”. More detail on this “checklist”  here.

It’s not just about the “war on terror” or indeed just about the last eight years either. Read Kate Allen on CiF on the extremely chequered human rights record of the United States – think death penalty, rendition-style snatches dating from the Clinton period and a resistance to international treaties going back decades. 

And finally, also have a look at Amnesty Campaigns Director Tim Hancock writing on the Daily Telegraph blog site (please participate in the comment debate on this site if you have a moment). As Tim says, to criticise the US for its human rights failings is not (as the tired old accusation would have it) “anti-American”. It’s precisely the opposite. Instead the criticism is a way of voicing the hope and expectation that America should rise to the challenge of its best traditions: liberty, freedom, human rights.

Now that would be change I could believe in. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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