With the midterms behind him, President Obama can spend his final two years in office devoting his full attention to priorities that will define his legacy. While many issues are competing for the administration’s attention, if the president wants to cement his legacy as a human rights champion, here are eight areas he should touch on in tonight’s State of the Union address and make priorities in the coming two years.
1. Closing Guantanamo
One of Obama’s first actions as president was to sign an executive order mandating the closure of Guantanamo in a year—six years later, it’s still open. If the president doesn’t fulfill his promise by the end of his term, there’s no telling whether the prison will ever actually close.
The administration has picked up the pace on detainee transfers recently, but more needs to be done. Obama should build on the current momentum and use his State of the Union address to outline his plan for closing the facility once and for all.
2. Cementing Torture Prohibitions
Ending torture and cruel treatment was once one of Obama’s signature issues; he e took decisive early action to end abusive CIA practices. But his recent lackluster support for the Senate intelligence committee’s report on torture has called his legacy on this important issue into question. Obama should support Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinNew variant raises questions about air travel mandates Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE’s (D-Calif.) soon-to-be introduced legislation and implement the executive actions she recommends that would increase oversight of the CIA and help prevent a return to torture.
3. Obtaining a limited Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS
Obama was elected to end wars. But now we’re engaged in a military conflict with ISIS while relying on outdated and ill-suited authorities from the 2001 AUMF. The president should seek a narrowly-tailored AUMF against ISIS that includes a sunset of the 2001 AUMF.
4. Bolstering the TransAtlantic Alliance against Extremism
This month’s tragic events in Paris remind us that countering terrorism requires global cooperation and rock solid relationships with our allies. It is troubling that alongside and entangled with the rise of religiously motivated terrorist violence, there has been a surge in popular support for far right racism and anti-Semitism in European politics.
In the February summit announced by Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one The Memo: Democrats may rue pursuit of Bannon Ben Affleck, Tracee Ellis Ross join anti-gerrymandering fundraiser with Clinton, Holder MORE, Obama should talk frankly with our allies about the effect the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe has on the strength of the Transatlantic alliance and the need to fight extremism in a way that promotes respect for human rights and the values the European Union and the United States share.
5. Protecting the Rights of LGBT People Globally
President Obama has made the rights of LGBT people a foreign policy priority, notably in his 2011 presidential memorandum directing federal agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT people. Now his task is to make sure that he takes progress in this area across the finish line by naming a special envoy for LGBT rights.
The symbolism of this issue is important: as Russia continues to promote “anti-propaganda” laws and now even bans transgender people from driving, the United States has the opportunity to demonstrate that it stands on the side of freedom and equality.
6. Changing the Strategy for Middle East Engagement
It doesn’t take special Middle East expertise to see that our policies toward the region aren’t working. While there are no easy solutions to the Middle East’s many problems, Obama could begin realigning U.S. policy in the region to make protecting and promoting human rights a strategic priority there. For example, providing financial and diplomatic support to countries like Tunisia, Jordan, and Morocco, where governments are trying to reform, would be as step toward aligning our policies with a strategic vision..
7. Ending Family Detention of Immigrants
Nothing could be more at odds with Emma Lazarus’s commendation to "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” than the 50-acre detention center for women and children that just opened in Dilley, Texas. Instead of warehousing women and children—many of them eligible for asylum or other protection under U.S. law—the Obama administration should use proven tools, including monitoring when necessary, to ensure people’s appearances at removal hearings. These alternatives have been shown to be effective, and lower cost than detention.
8. Supporting Activists Working in Repressive Societies
President Obama has made “partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world . . . a mission across the U.S. government.” One specific thing he could do to further that mission before the end of his turn would be to align the Treasury Department’s practices with his commitment. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an inter-governmental body that develops and promotes policies to combat money laundering and financing of terrorism. However, repressive governments too often use FATF compliance to justify silencing opposition and cracking down on NGOs they don’t like. In 2015, the United States, under the leadership of the Treasury Department, will be co-chairing revisions to the Best Practices Guide for governments to implement FATF requirements. Treasury should use this opportunity to make sure that the guidance issued leads to crack-downs on terrorists, not activists.
McBride is Human Rights First’s vice president for Outreach and Engagement.