Human Rights Agenda for the New Administration

October 2008  
The next US president will take office at a time when the credibility and effectiveness of the United States in combating human rights abuses abroad has been badly eroded by the US government’s own actions. There is an urgent need to remedy abuses on many fronts, but Human Rights Watch here highlights four crucial initiatives that the new president should take shortly after assuming office:

1. Ensure that US Counterterrorism Efforts Comply with International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law  

The Bush administration’s methodical disregard for the human rights of those detained in the campaign against terrorism has been disastrous for the global human rights cause, diminishing the moral standing of a government that traditionally was an ally in promoting human rights, and setting a powerful negative example for abusive governments around the world.  Undoing the damage done will require a public commitment to a new course and firm measures to implement that policy.  As first steps, the next president should:

2. Make Human Rights a Central Pillar of US Foreign Policy  
For eight years, the Bush administration claimed to promote democracy and freedom, usually in the form of democratic elections, rather than a more broad-based human rights agenda.  Its criticisms of human rights abuses were strongest with respect to longtime adversaries like Iran and Cuba, and countries of little strategic importance, such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma, but far less consistent when it came to close US allies like Egypt and Pakistan.  This selectivity has undermined US credibility, encouraged abusive regimes, and left human rights activists in many parts of the world with weak support from the country that should be their most powerful defender.  Some examples of countries where essential change in US policy is needed are: 

3. Rejoin the International Human Rights Community  

The Bush administration pursued a policy of exceptionalism that extended to the international human rights and humanitarian law framework.  The US government has remained an international outcast by failing to ratify important and long-standing human rights treaties, and has repudiated, rather than worked with allies to improve, the UN Human Rights Council. Instead of being a leader in promoting international justice, the US government has adopted a tentative and haphazard approach to prosecuting rights abusers that has been at the expense of global accountability and victims of injustice.
The next president should reverse course regarding the international human rights framework and international justice.  As immediate steps, the next administration should:

4. Demonstrate Leadership on Human Rights Issues at Home  

In addition to restoring its credibility as a human rights leader abroad, the United States should expand human rights protection at home.  The next president should:

Related Material

Download the Human Rights Agenda
Campaign Document, October 29, 2008

More on Human Rights in the US
Thematic Page, October 30, 2008

More on US Foreign Policy and Human Rights
Thematic Page, October 30, 2008