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January 18, 2013

Obama Faces Fundamental Human Rights Issues as Second Term Begins

Washington, DC –Human Rights First is urging President Obama to actively engage U.S. leadership on a number of fundamental human rights issues during his second term. The organization is calling on the President to prioritize immigration reform that includes an overhaul of the U.S. immigration detention system, efforts to bring the number of detainees at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo down to zero, the protection from violence of LGBTI people globally, advancing international religious freedom, preventing mass atrocities, as well as working to protect and support human rights defenders around the world.

“Human rights cannot be lost amidst the economic beltway battles that President Obama will surely face in his second term,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “In President Obama’s 2009 Nobel lecture, he observed, ‘We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.’ During his second term, he should channel this same spirit as he works to tackle some of our nation’s most pressing human rights challenges.”

Last month, Human Rights First released a set of 13 blueprints for the next administration, documents that outline steps lawmakers and the new administration should take to address a number of key human rights issues. These documents address ongoing advocacy priorities for the organization, including:

  • Release the Facts on Torture: On his second day in office, President Obama shut down the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, but torture proponents continue to argue that torture “works.” President Obama should work with the U.S. Senate intelligence committee to release a declassified version of the recently adopted CIA torture report and ensure that the American people get the facts about torture.
  • Close Guantanamo: At the same time as he signed an Executive Order to ban the practice of torture, President Obama signed another Executive Order to close closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo because it undermines U.S. national security and compromises American values. In his second term, he should work with Congress and his administration to fulfill that promise and to bring the number of detainees at Guantanamo down to zero.
  •  Support Human Rights Defenders:  As more countries crack down on nongovernmental organizations, the administration should dedicate itself to a stronger and more consistent approach to supporting civil society and human rights defenders and protect them by improving the environment in which they operate. The administration should increase engagement with human rights defenders by the U.S. embassies and U.S. officials, as well as support the rights of civil society organizations to operate without harassment.
  • Protect LGBTI Persons Around the World from Violence: On December 6, 2011, President Obama issued a memorandum that instructs U.S. government agencies engaged abroad to take steps to promote the rights of LGBTI people. It is an important milestone for U.S. leadership on advancing the rights of LGBTI persons, because it fully engages the complete resources of the U.S. government in a coordinated effort to advocate for LGBT rights as human rights, and, by doing so, it signals to human rights activists and governments around the world that the United States is prioritizing this issue. The administration is expected to and should further operationalize and institutionalize the memorandum in the next term, and to focus specifically on protecting LGBT people, including refugees, from violence around the world.
  • Promote International Religious Freedom: Virtually all major U.S. foreign policy challenges involve countries where religious freedom is denied or where religious conflict destabilizes society. Recent incidents like “Burn a Koran Day” and the furor over the film The innocence of Muslims demonstrate the security threats sparked by charges of blasphemy. The Obama Administration should develop a preventative strategy for combating religious extremism and promoting religious freedom that is commensurate with the challenges in today’s global landscape.
  • Repair the U.S. Asylum and Refugee Resettlement Systems: As the administration and Congress take up the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, they should not overlook the need for the U.S. to reaffirm its leadership on the protection of refugees by repairing flaws in the U.S. asylum and resettlement systems. As various immigration reform bills move forward, the administration has an opportunity to realize its commitment to transform its detention policies from a jail-like system to a civil system. Immigration reform also provides an opportunity to repeal the one-year-filing deadline for asylum applicants that is opposed by the administration, lawyers representing asylum cases, and human rights and resettlement organizations on the grounds that it is inefficient, impractical, and cost-consuming.
  • Disrupt Enablers of Mass AtrocitiesThe failure of the global community to prevent mass atrocities in Syria will hang over the Obama Administration in the coming months.  While the Administration seeks to institutionalize the Atrocities Prevention Board it announced in April 23, 2012, it will be challenged to devise new strategies to stop mass atrocities.  There is an urgent need and now, a real constituency, to establish a robust U.S. response to enablers and suppliers of atrocities, including Russia and those sporting conflict in Sudan, Northern Mali and Nigeria. Human Rights First is proud that the Administration has recognized the importance of this strategy and embedded it in its inter-agency process around prevention and early warning.   Over the next year, the relevant agencies – namely Treasury, State, and Defense – should work to isolate and starve the channels used to supply money, guns, and other material resources into numerous conflict zones that fuel mass atrocities.

“The coming four years offer a unique opportunity for President Obama to strengthen the United States’ role as an international leader in protecting and advancing human rights,” concluded Stahnke. “We urge him to prioritize this work from the first day of his second term.”

For more information, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder at bowsersoderb@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3323.