Time for a Reset on Human Rights

Obama’s record has been a disappointment. Now he has a second chance to get it right.

In 2008, Barack Obama's election thrilled many human rights activists. For eight years under George W. Bush, the U.S. government had used torture, held hundreds in long-term detention without trial, and committed abuses at wartime prisons such as Iraq's Abu Ghraib. Rights advocates hoped -- and, based on many of Obama's election-season remarks, reasonably expected -- that the unlawful renditions, secret prisons, and unfair trials would give way to a new American commitment the Constitution and international law.

Although Obama faced truculent political opposition in his first term, his weak record on human rights cannot be explained away by economic exigencies or even congressional defiance. Obama now openly embraces the concept of a global "war on terror" as grounds to override international human rights norms and reinterpret the Constitution. Osama Bin Laden's killing was not only the chief talking point of his campaign but a synecdoche for his approach to the terrorist threat, one in which the administration writes its own rules. Although preventing attacks on U.S. soil represents an important human rights victory, this should not overshadow the worrisome direction of U.S. human rights policy and its long-term consequences. If the president's legacy is to include reclaiming U.S. human rights credibility, he needs to face up to his troubling record, and fix it.

The Obama administration has led in some areas of human rights policy; examples include advancing gay and lesbian rights, bolstering U.N. human rights mechanisms, and promoting Internet freedom. But where human rights norms are pitted against counterterrorism tactics, it has fallen down. Blocked by Congress, Obama broke his first-term promise to close Guantánamo. Four years later, that failure barely seems to register as a disappointment; 167 men languish in the prison, including 55 who are cleared for release but have not been transferred.

Recent weeks have revealed details of an Orwellian "disposition matrix" -- a kill list of top terrorist targets that keeps getting longer. The administration claims the authority to kill those named, anytime and anywhere, based on secret information and unreviewable judgments. The administration has declared any man killed by a drone to be an enemy terrorist, and defends such killings regardless of resulting civilian casualties.

With the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan, these extraordinary powers are detached from any major battlefield or conventional war. The administration is now backed into claiming that a war exists because it has convinced itself it cannot function without a broad license to kill. Short of al Qaeda suing for peace, this war may never end. The administration's reshaping of the concept of war risks undoing over 100 years of evolution of the laws of war, and the protections those laws have delivered.

The next four years will define whether this rewriting of the rules becomes a bipartisan "new normal" in the United States, and implicit permission for the rest of the world to sidestep human rights. Absent swift progress to close Guantánamo, the men now held will likely die there of old age decades from now, since no future president is likely to renew Obama's ill-fated pledge to close the facility. And even if the Guantánamo detainees are transferred to a U.S. prison, bringing indefinite detention onshore, it is hard to fathom the practice will not be used again to deal with future threats. The bipartisan affirmation of drone use will make those weapons routine for the United States and any other government with a kill list of its own.

A foreign policy centered on killing and countering terrorists poses risks for the global human rights order, and for U.S. security and global standing. Obama acknowledged these dangers not so long ago. In a 2007 article, he wrote that "to build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law." While the president has ended some of these practices, he has endorsed others with equally corrosive effects. By stepping up drone attacks, he has turned angry families in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere into terrorist sympathizers, stoked anti-American sentiment, and set an example that other regimes use to rationalize abusive behavior.

Obama now faces a fateful decision: Is the killing of bin Laden the emblem of a foreign policy in which counterterrorism goals automatically trump human rights? Or will he use his second term to revive his 2008 assertion that America's "global engagement cannot be defined by what we are against. It must be guided by a clear sense of what we stand for"?

This latter course dictates several steps. First, he should publicly recommit himself to closing Guantánamo without bringing its detainees onshore for indefinite detention. He should transfer the 55 detainees already cleared and press for federal trials of detainees in appropriate cases. (A good starting point would be Shaker Aamer, who has been at Guantánamo for more than 10 years and was first cleared for release to his home country, Britain, by George W. Bush in 2007.)  Second, he should announce that the United States' use of drones will henceforth conform to international human rights law. This will require unmasking the secrecy that surrounds the program and ensuring accountability. Third, he should install in the White House a top human rights advisor with a broad mandate and access and influence equivalent to what counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has enjoyed. Since the early departure of White House Counsel Gregory Craig, no senior member of the president's inner circle has pushed for the realization of his human rights promises. U.S. human rights leadership will not be restored without a top, trusted White House official able to go toe-to-toe with the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon.

Some Obama enthusiasts in the human rights community suggest that the president's apparent indifference to his human rights legacy is a temporary nod to the politics of the day and to American voters who may not prize American human rights credibility. With his reelection behind him, we will soon learn what Obama really stands for.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Bahrain Burning

The island kingdom is descending into violence, and nobody has a plan to restore order.

Violence is once again rearing its ugly head in Bahrain. The coordinated detonation of five home-made explosive devices in the capital of Manama on Nov. 5, resulting in the death of two people and the maiming of another, was not some crude attempt to celebrate Guy Fawkes night, but an escalation of bloodshed that threatens to tip the island kingdom into chaos.

The attack appears to be an amateurish attempt to cause terror and mayhem, achieving no result other than killing innocent expatriate labourers. The quality of the explosive devices was poor, suggesting that the attacks were the work of unsophisticated actors working with little institutional support.

Four individuals were arrested for the bombing just one day after it occurred, with Bahrain officials warning darkly that the attacks "bear the hallmark" of Hezbollah. The link to the Lebanese militant organization is crude: Poorly constructed pipe bombs are not Hezbollah's style -- one need only look at the July attack on the Bulgarian city of Burgas to see the group's devastating efficiency in killing innocents. So while it is possible that the individuals responsible may hold some affinity for the group, it is highly unlikely a Hezbollah cell is to blame for this act.

Government officials and some of their more hard-line supporters have at times stretched the truth in describing actions by anti-government factions as terrorism, and very rarely has the opposition's strategy of civil disobedience strayed into violence. But let's be clear: the Nov. 5 bombings were acts of terrorism, committed by terrorists. The government would be justified in prosecuting the offenders to the fullest extent of the law.

The important question to ask is why terrorist actions are now increasing to what appears to be a sustained level. The fact is, this latest attack is the result of a political reconciliation process that is going nowhere and is radicalizing the Bahraini population in the process. The Interior Ministry's Oct. 30 decision to ban all protests and the Nov. 7 decision to strip 31 activists of citizenship are just the latest in a series of measures taken in the kingdom that appear oppressive, and serve only to further harden the political battle lines in this deeply divided country.

There is, fortunately, a silver lining amidst this grim news. Some of the reforms proposed by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which the monarchy commissioned to investigate the abuses committed during last year's uprising, have been implemented: Security reforms have been comprehensive, and some police units' performance has improved significantly -- instances of police brutality have dropped significantly in recent months. Furthermore police units still acting irresponsibly will have to face an independent ombudsman who will judge their actions without political or ministry interference. Additionally, five Shia mosques that were inexplicably razed to the ground last year are also in the process of being rebuilt, with two more scheduled for reconstruction, though there are still 32 lying in rubble.

However, the key for Bahrain to emerge from its current crisis is to solve its economic problems -- namely, the lack of jobs and sources of social empowerment for Bahraini citizens, many of whom happen to be Shia. Jobs may not solve the island kingdom's political problems overnight, but they would help build conditions whereby many of Bahrain's poorer citizens can gain some respect and dignity.

Many observers see Bahrain exclusively through a sectarian prism: The political outcome, they believe, revolves around how Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia acts. But the truth is that neither of these regional powerhouses wishes to see Bahrain remain in its current state of disorder. The vast majority of Bahrain's issues are local, and their impact is felt on people's everyday lives. The country is more than a pawn on a global chessboard: The grand schemes of Iran's supreme leader or Saudi Arabia's custodian of the two holy mosques are not the decisive factors in this conflict.

This fact makes the need for comprehensive economic reform and the revitalization of the domestic political reconciliation process all the more crucial. The recent attacks could throw a wrench in the process: Those on the pro-government side may see entering negotiations with al-Wefaq, the country's largest opposition body, as a reward for terrorism. Such a reaction, however, would be a mistake. Wefaq does not encourage -- nor is it responsible -- for terrorist acts in Bahrain, and responded to the attacks by signing a declaration that explicitly "condemns violence, in all its forms, sources, and parties." The party, however, has been reluctant to admit that this recent terrorist act came from the Shia community.

It may suit some in the Royal Court to demonize Wefaq and its spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassim -- and the party's rather ambiguous condemnation of the most recent attack affords them ammunition to do so. But in the long run, loyalist hard-liners' continued intransigence and efforts to undermine the party are foolish. A weakened Wefaq will exercise even less control over disparate elements in the Shia community. Hard line groups -- such as the al-Haq movement or the leaderless but loosely associated February 14th movement -- already pay little heed to Wefaq's calls for restraint, and the problem does not need to be made any worse.

The real way to solve the country's longstanding issues centers on a comprehensive deal between Wefaq and the government, led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad. Both actors have been considered moderate representatives in their respective camps -- and both have made mistakes, with Wefaq's refusal to accept the crown prince's terms in March 2011 being perhaps the greatest mistake of all.

The current direction of events in Bahrain does not suggest a bright future for the country. Also worrying is the absence of any significant international press coverage. Those with a violent political agenda know full well that mayhem will once again return Bahrain to the attention of the outside world -- a fact that usually benefits the opposition, due to the overwhelming perception in Western media that the government bears most of the blame for the country's problems. The holy month of Muharram and the Shia commemoration of Ashura, often flashpoints for political grievances, loom in the near future. It is likely that we will see more terrorism and violence during this period -- and where Bahrain goes after that is anybody's guess.