Words into Action is Key Formula for Renewing U.S. Human Rights Leadership

(Washington DC December 14, 2009) Responding to Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton’s promise to renew America’s role in defending human rights around the globe, Human Rights First today called on the Obama Administration to put words into action as it strives to achieve this important goal.

“We welcome Secretary Clinton’s call to move beyond rhetoric and embrace the responsibility to make human rights real in the lives of people everywhere. The gap between ideals and reality is wide, and closing it will require innovative strategies, unrelenting focus, and hard work,” said Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First. “Promotion of human rights and democracy must be at the center of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. Governments that fail to respect the rights of their own citizens not only sow the seeds of insecurity and conflict, but they are unreliable partners. As the Administration navigates complex relationships with nations like Iran, Russia and Colombia, it must put Secretary Clinton’s theory into practice, by fulfilling the promise to promote democracy and protect the rights of all people, not as an afterthought, or as one item on a long agenda, but as a central and guiding principle that will secure the foundation for other strategic interests.”

Human Rights First welcomed Secretary Clinton’s recognition that the United States must lead by example and noted that there are still impediments to that leadership. For example, the United States must not only close its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, it must ensure that the policy concerns and problems associated with that facility do not become a permanent feature of our laws and policies. Likewise, Human Rights First welcomed Secretary Clinton’s affirmation of the value of looking backward: “Acknowledging and remedying mistakes does not make us weaker, it reaffirms the strength of our principles.” Yet the administration has taken few steps to hold accountable the perpetrators and architects of torture and arbitrary detention and to compensate its victims.

In response to today’s speech, Human Rights First calls on the Obama Administration to take immediate action on the following fronts:

  • In Iran, the Obama administration should reaffirm its support for those who are calling for greater freedom, democracy and respect for their basic rights even as it seeks to engage the Iranian government on vital issues of nuclear non-proliferation;
  • In Russia, “pressing the re-set button” and seeking a more positive relationship with Moscow must be paired with a strategy for arresting Russia’s disturbing slide towards autocracy. The United States, with its democratic allies in Europe and around the world, should lead a collective inter-governmental effort to protect vulnerable Russian human rights defenders, especially those focusing on Chechnya and the North Caucasus;
  • In Colombia, notwithstanding a strong bilateral relationship, the Obama administration should condemn the ongoing and serious human rights violations. In particular, the United States should call for an end to the dangerous abuse of counter-terrorism rhetoric to criminalize and stigmatize Colombian human rights defenders.

“Human Rights First agrees with Secretary Clinton that the administration’s human rights strategies should be judged on whether they produce change and improve the ability of people to exercise and enjoy their rights. That is the benchmark to which we should hold the administration accountable,” Massimino concluded.


Published on December 14, 2009


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