NEW YORK – As an estimated two million celebrants converge on the U.S. capital for the inauguration festivities of President-elect Barack Obama Tuesday, the mood among human rights groups and some religious leaders is somewhat more sombre.
They are calling on Obama to use his first hundred days in office to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and repudiate the policies of President George W. Bush on an array of issues ranging from detainee torture and rendition to warrantless wiretapping and signing statements.
But with the nation facing the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is unclear whether human rights will become the top priority of the Obama administration and its allies in Congress.
Nonetheless, such leading organisations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, and Human Rights First are demanding that the president-elect take the lead in effecting speedy action.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) wants the Obama administration to close the CIA’s secret detention centres permanently, apply to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the rules used by the U.S. military to prevent coercive interrogation, close the Guantanamo detention centre, repatriate or prosecute all detainees, and ensure that prosecutions are conducted in regular courts, not the “substandard” military commissions.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW said, “Barack Obama must seize back the US leadership in global human rights squandered by outgoing President George Bush in Guantanamo Bay and other scandals.”
Last week, the group issued a 564-page report on the state of human rights around the world. It charged that governments opposing basic rights, including those in Russia and China, had rushed to fill a vacuum left by the United States.
It blamed Bush’s “abandonment of long-held principles, including opposition to torture, in the U.S. war against Islamist militants,” but said Obama “could repair the damage once he takes office on Jan. 20”.
“There is an enormous need for the Obama administration to redeem America’s reputation,” Roth added.
At the same time, a coalition of equally prominent groups issued a similar “Human Rights Call to Action” at a summit in Washington last week. It demanded that the Obama administration put an end to “torture, arbitrary detention, and extraordinary rendition, including closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and rejecting preventive detention models; ending surveillance abuses, attacks on dissent, and targeting of immigrant groups and other communities of color; and ensuring human rights, civil rights and civil liberties.”
The summit included the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Constitution Project, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the National Lawyers Guild, the Partnership for Civil Justice, the Torture Abolition Survivors Support Coalition, the US Human Rights Network, and Witness Against Torture
Similar demands are being made by a number of religious leaders and organisations.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is urging Obama to issue an executive order ending torture as one of his first official acts in office. A letter to the president-elect, signed by close to three dozen prominent religious leaders representing the country’s diverse faith traditions, said, “Such a step will help the United States to regain the moral high ground and restore our credibility within the international community at this critical time.”
NRCAT also joined a number of other groups in calling for “an investigation of torture policies and practices since 9/11.” Rev. Richard L. Killmer, its executive director, told IPS, “In order to create safeguards to make sure that torture does not happen again, it is important to understand what happened. NRCAT supports an independent non-partisan committee of inquiry with subpoena power and sufficient funding to do a thorough investigation and issue a comprehensive report.”
He added, “I think about my seven grandchildren. I can imagine that some day they will say that the United States used to torture, but we don’t do that anymore. The challenge for our nation is to develop sufficient safeguards so that we don’t torture anymore. We need to understand what happen so that those safeguards can be created.”
Another group of prominent religious leaders presented the Obama administration with what it called a “Come Let Us Reason Together” Agenda. As part of a multi-issue declaration, the group asserted that “The use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American.”
Leaders of the group represent such organisations as Third Way, Public Religion Research, Evangelicals for Human Rights, Evangelicals for Social Action, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Faith in Public Life.
As these organisations went public with their demands, pressure appeared to be growing for a comprehensive independent investigation of human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Bush administration. But when ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos pressed Obama about it on the television programme “This Week”, Obama said he was “still evaluating” the situation but added, “My orientation is going to be moving forward.”
However, on Obama’s transition website, Change.gov, the top-rated publicly-submitted question asked the incoming president whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate “the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.”
Other powerful players are taking the view that questions about the Bush administration’s torture policies are so serious they can be answered only by a bipartisan, in-depth investigation. Among them is Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who introduced a bill to establish a blue-ribbon commission to investigate Bush’s alleged abuse of executive war powers and civil liberties. The commission would be similar to the panel that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.
The pressure on the Obama team escalated last week when a senior Bush administration official admitted that Guantanamo interrogators and guards had tortured one of the detainees, Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi national accused of planning to take part in the Sep. 11 attacks.
The official, Susan Crawford, a retired judge who oversees the military tribunals for Guantanamo Bay inmates, told The Washington Post, “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.
According to press reports, Qahtani had proved impervious to standard military interrogation in 2002 when former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorised special methods to break his will.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described the admission as “stunning” but said the Bush administration was still planning, on its final full day in office, to prosecute other detainees who had been tortured.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have said that the United States does not torture. But Cheney has admitted publicly that a technique known as waterboarding – which simulates drowning – was administered to three detainees.
Bush Administration officials, including the president, vice president, and Attorney General Michael Mukasey, do not acknowledge that waterboarding constitutes torture. But Obama’s nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, unequivocally declared, “waterboarding is torture”.
The significance of the phrase “The First Hundred Days” stems from the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office during the Great Depression. In 1933, he called Congress back from a recess to hold a special emergency session, during which more than 15 bills – the heart of FDR’s New Deal – were passed and signed into law. The hundred day mantra has been the gold standard for U.S. presidents ever since.