Dear President Obama,
Great speech yesterday on the Arab Spring.
I was so encouraged by your acknowledgment that US interests in the region include respect for the rights and dignity of its people by their governments. I was equally encouraged by your insistence on the U.S. role in fashioning rewards and punishments that support the legitimate, democratic aspirations of people in the region.
And so, I was discouraged that one critical message was conspicuously absent from your speech: the conditions that make the United States a credible moral force in the Arab and Muslim world.
One of those conditions is to practice what the United States preaches, and more importantly, to be seen to practice what it preaches.
In this respect, nothing could be more important than to address the reasonable fears of people in the region that the United States exercises double standards. In America, there’s a rising tide of attacks on Muslims. There’s groundless fear mongering about a non-existent threat of sharia law taking over American courts. There’s over-exposure of beyond-marginal individuals burning Korans.
And then there’s the more mainstream, but equally harmful matter of how the United States fights violent extremism. There is renewed debate about the merits of torture. Detention without trial and trial by rightfully discredited mechanisms like military commissions are becoming fixtures in a picture that is reasonably seen as designed to deal with a “Muslim problem.” There is the utter failure of the United States to come to responsible terms with its torture legacy – either by holding torturers accountable or by providing remedies for their largely Muslim victims – as international law requires.
Meanwhile, in its war in Afghanistan, the United States is seen to detain without regard to due process of law and to kill with insufficient regard to the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians.
Some of these concerns are more based in fact than others, but they all feed the notion that the United States is at war not just against terrorists, but against Islam, itself.
For this reason, your speech would have been the perfect opportunity to push back against the torture apologists, against those that would deny terrorism suspects their rights to due process under law, those who wrongly identify Islam – rather than extremists – as the problem. It would have been a good moment to reaffirm the right of recognition to victims of U.S. torture and arbitrary detention.
Mr. President, there is still plenty you can, and must do. Most notably, your voice has been conspicuously absent from the public arena while opposition political players have been successfully blocking the reforms you campaigned on and claimed you would institute, like closing Guantanamo and ending military commissions. Your moral authority is sorely needed to push back, not only against policies and practices that are counterproductive to national security (like indefinite detention without trial, second rate justice for non-Americans, and detainee abuse) but also against the growing perception that the enemy is Islam, itself and that attacking Islam is somehow defending America.
This would not only be the right thing to do on its own merits. For years, the United States has supported oppressive and corrupt governments in the Arab world. See today’s NY Times (“Many in Arab World Say Obama’s Speech Doesn’t Dispel Grievances Against U.S.”). If the United States is to be the beacon for human rights that it sees in the mirror, it must pre-empt the claims of American hypocrisy under which dictators take cover and which cast distrust among those whose aspirations you seek to encourage.
Your speech yesterday was a big and necessary step, heralding a change in the calculus of U.S. interests in the region. Now you need to show that you’re serious about human rights abroad by saying, and doing, more to bring human rights home.
International Legal Director
Human Rights First