(photo: Barack Obama)

The Obama Administration recently announced that it would begin an “interagency process” to implement commitments made on human rights before the UN Human Rights Council just over a year ago. Coinciding with the announcement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put out a report on how the administration has done so far.

The report highlighted key areas of criminal justice, national security and immigration, where the US must make improvements. It put forward “concrete ways that the Obama administration” could “make tangible progress in protecting and promoting human rights.” It also suggested how the administration could address “very serious violations” of human rights.”

On national security, the report urges the administration to grant UN Special Rapporteurs “unimpeded access to Guantanamo Bay.” The ACLU notes the “history of secrecy and abuse at Guantanamo,” which makes transparency even more important. It argues that giving UN experts access is “consistent with recommendations made in the US Defense Department’s own 2009 review of detention conditions at Guantanamo.” It notes non-governmental organizations or international organizations (except for the Red Cross) have not been allowed access to prisoners.

The ACLU’s commitment to pressing the US government to provide accountability and remedies for torture is renewed. The group again calls for a “full investigation into past cases of torture.” It also reiterates a call made before and urges the administration to “end the unjustified and improper assertion of the ‘state secrets’ privilege” that has been employed to “shield government officials and corporations.”

There is now overwhelming evidence that under the Bush administration high level U.S. officials operated an interrogation program that subjected hundreds of prisoners to cruelty that violated both domestic and international law. In June, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice was only pursuing full criminal investigations into the deaths of two prisoners in U.S. custody. The U.S. government should reverse its decision to so significantly narrow its investigation into abuses of in U.S. custody and should commit to fully pursuing accountability for all those responsible for acts of torture consistent with its international legal obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).

The report urges the administration to reduce the number of people locked up in the US immigration detention system. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has noted that the majority of individuals detained have a “low propensity for violence” yet there are tens of thousands of immigrants subject to “brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement.” They note the success of DHS’s Alternatives to Detention programs and suggest that “supervised release with a combination of case management and assistance, reporting requirements (telephonic and/or in-person)” and curfews, home visits and electronic monitoring, if necessary, would be better than holding people in detention.

The ACLU condemns two DHS programs that allow for racial profiling: 287(g), which “allows certain state and local law enforcement officers to engage in immigration enforcement” and Secure Communities (S-Comm), “under which everyone arrested and booked into a local jail has their fingerprints checked against ICE’s immigration database.” State and city governments have refused to participate in S-Comm because it makes it harder for police to do their job by destroying trust built up in the community.

Excessive use of force by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents is condemned as well. The report outlines the escalated use of lethal force on immigrants:

…In 2010, the Mexican Foreign Ministry reported that the number of Mexican nationals injured or killed as a result of use of force by U.S. Border Patrol agents has increased dramatically from 5 in 2008 to 12 in 2009 to 17 in just the first five months of 2010,but these numbers significantly understate the scale of the problem as countless incidents go unreported or occur against non-Mexican nationals. Over the past two years, there have been several fatal shootings where circumstances suggest the Border Patrol agents’ use of force was disproportionate. In response to a June 2011 incident where a U.S. Border Patrol agent shot and killed a suspected border crosser on the Mexican side of the border who was allegedly throwing rocks at agents, Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat stated: “The Mexican government energetically condemns the death. … [We] reiterate that the use of firearms to repel attacks with rocks, which is what preliminary information indicates may have occurred in this case, represents a disproportionate use of force.”

Finally, with regards to criminal justice, the ACLU calls upon the US to address the problems of racism in the employment of the death penalty. The group also advocates for the end of solitary confinement abuse. It is unclear whether the group supports a call to end the use of solitary confinement in any US prisons, but the group does note UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez’s work, which has focused on how solitary confinement can cause “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and even torture.” They call on the administration to grant Mendez “unimpeded access” to prisons and prisoners in solitary confinement so he can do the work he is supposed to do as a UN Special Rapporteur.

Mendez has spent the past year seeking answers on the pre-trial confinement of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks. He officially condemned the US for its treatment of Manning ten days ago. He tried to get access to Manning and have a “private, unmonitored and privileged” meeting. The US government would not grant him unimpeded access.

The report touches on many of the ongoing human rights violations that need to be addressed. Sadly, the political climate in the US is likely to prevent any reasonable attention to these issues. The Republican Party is populated by individuals, who become hysterical at the mention of human rights. They often subscribe to the notion that giving victims of human rights violations attention is in effect giving them special rights. They also ignorantly believe that detention and torture are all part of keeping the homeland safe and thus any abuses are to be excused.

Meanwhile, the individuals that populate the Democratic Party do not have the political will to strongly put forward a counter-narrative. They either agree with most of the Republican Party’s stances on key issues of human rights or they do not wish to create problems for bureaucratic institutions in government that would be shaken up if they said anything. They waffle on taking stands because they think any effort will be obstructed by Republicans. And they refuse to challenge the Executive Branch because that would mean going against President Barack Obama, a Democratic president perceived by much of the base to be liberal on many of these issues.

Human rights becomes something invoked by US diplomats to advance national interests and justify wars of aggression or intervention. The advancement of human rights becomes a cover for justifying military occupation. Its meaning is wholly cheapened so America can expand its power in parts of the world. And, its leaders want to claim status as the number one country in the world while at the same time refusing to address human rights problems that make America less than number one; in fact, they make it difficult to criticize other countries for violating the rights of their people.

The violations of human rights highlighted by the ACLU are acceptable tools in US government. They are believed to be effective in policing the country and keeping America safe. The officials that consider detention, the death penalty, secrecy, racial profiling, solitary confinement, etc, to be helpful are people more concerned with the continuity of government than the rights and civil liberties of human beings. They tune out the impact of what they do because they lack the mental capacity to imagine a more humane way of handling possible threats to the country.

When government has people who put the health of people before the health of government institutions, America will be a true beacon for human rights and freedom. But that has to happen first for any meaningful change to occur.