With Hadar Harris, Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law
How did the idea for the conference on the Obama Administration and Human Rights come about?
Last fall, we held a meeting with all of the deans and provost of American University to discuss how to better coordinate the huge range of activities on human rights at American University. Our Center has been working increasingly closely with all of the units across the campus, and we decided that we wanted to do something that would reflect American University’s deep commitment, diverse scholarship and practical service in the field of human rights. Given that we are situated here in Washington, DC, the idea of focusing on the Obama Administration and its human rights record – both the prospects for the future and what’s already been accomplished –was an idea that everyone rallied around.
What are you hopes/goals for the conference?
We hope that the conference will create a national and international discussion about the role of the Obama Administration in promoting and protecting human rights. The conference will provide a balanced examination of what the Obama Administration has said and what it has done. In order to do that, we are bringing in an array of speakers from within the administration, as well as from the NGO community, the activist community, the academic community, and the think-tank community, representing all sides on a variety of issues.
We have over 50 speakers in 20 breakout sessions, 4 plenary presentations and an evening cultural event over the course of 2 days. We have progressive speakers, conservative speakers, democrats, republicans, independents and others. In addition to speakers from the U.S. we’re trying to focus attention on how the international community is viewing the actions of the Obama Administration.
Also, I am very excited that we are live webcasting the conference and are working to set up concurrent screening parties in various parts of the world. Where the time change is not convenient, we are encouraging viewers to download the tapes of the conference for screening afterwards.
What kinds of experts will be speaking and attending?
The opening keynote of the conference will be given by The Honorable Maria Otero, the Under-Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Foundations will be giving another keynote address at a luncheon plenary.
Among the over 50 speakers that will be participating in the conference are people like Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of Human Rights First and many others. A variety of people from within the administration, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the State Department, as well as top level experts from all of the major human rights organizations. We have a really interesting mixture of voices and perspectives so I know that it will be an important – and interesting – discussion.
What makes this conference so timely, given current international events and issues in human rights?
I think there’s no time more important to talk about how the leadership of the U.S. is handling human rights issues. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen tremendous change in the Middle East and North Africa, which is still playing itself out. We’ve got the fallout, literal and figurative, in Japan of the tsunami and nuclear crisis there, and how that’s going to impact not just the people living there but the economy worldwide. We have the economic crisis here at home. We have tremendous changes underway in various parts of the world all at the same time – and all of it has implications for the human rights of individuals.
I think it’s important to look at the actions of the U.S., both in how it promotes and protects human rights internationally at this sensitive moment in time, and also how it promotes and protects human rights at home. The U.S. needs to ‘walk the walk’ that it is promoting in other parts of the world, and there’s a growing movement in the U.S. and within the current administration to actually recognize the need to look at human rights at home as well as abroad. Secretary of State Clinton has alluded to that, both in the annual human rights reports that the State Department issues (and issued this past week), as well as in addresses that she and other top administration officials have made over time.
We have structured the conference to reflect these two overlapping areas of focus: human rights at home and abroad.
How would you define the narrative in terms of the Obama Administration’s handling of human rights issues?
The Obama Administration came into office after a period where the US’ credibility as the torch carrier for universal human rights was deeply shaken. The creation of the detention facility at Guantanamo, the legal sanctions for the use of torture, well-publicized violations of human rights by US combat forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of rendition… the list goes on. So there were high hopes for what the Obama Administration would do - in deeds as well as in words. This was bolstered by the fact that many key human rights activists from the NGO community have taken influential positions within the administration. The hopes were very high.
And while there has been a great deal of rhetoric committed to the promotion and protection of human rights, and a welcome new acknowledgement of the need to harmonize the commitment to work overseas as well as human rights at home, there still is a great deal yet to be done.
There are policy positions that this administration has taken that certainly seem to contravene internationally recognized human rights norms. There are also things that have been done in terms of progress being made by this administration on certain other issues. So we’re hoping that this conference will examine all of those issues, and will give a balanced assessment of what has been done, what needs to be done, and what could (or should) be done differently.