Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The State of the Human Rights Union

by Margaret Drew and Martha Davis

Last night President Obama gave what was billed as his last State of the Union Address.  We review that speech to consider how deeply President Obama incorporated human rights themes into his vision of the American future.  

Franklin D. Roosevelt set a high bar for State of the Union speeches in 1941 with his "Four Freedoms" speech.  In that speech, President Roosevelt went beyond the Four Freedoms to also identify the foundations of a healthy and strong America:  "Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.  Jobs for those who can work.  Security for those who need it.  The ending of special privilege for the few.  The preservation of civil liberties for all." 

Sound familiar?  In large part, the identical foundations were sounded by President Obama, who acknowledged Roosevelt during his own speech.  An important difference is that Roosevelt's address was delivered at the beginning of his 3rd term, laying out an agenda that he would champion during the coming years.  In contrast, President Obama largely presented these themes as challenges for the future, for the next 5 to 10 years, with few specifics about what his own administration's affirmative contributions might be over the next 12 months.   

On the specific human rights challenges facing the nation, the speech was mixed.  On one hand, the President identified some human rights goals that were accomplished, such as the Affordable Care Act -- certainly with its flaws, but on a path toward realization of the human right to health.  He also praised the nation's contributions to ending the Ebola crisis and moves toward clean energy that help preserve human rights in the long run.

On the other hand, he identified several human rights goals that remain unachieved in the final year of his presidency.  He cited the failure to close Guantanamo, as he has in all but one of his State of the Union addresses, but with no new ideas about how to gain its closure.  The President also identified criminal justice reform and substance addictions as among the social issues yet to be tackled.  A State of the Union address may not be the time for details, but some of President Obama's calls for human rights-related reforms were particularly blurry.  For example, what does immigration "reform" encompass?  Will fair processes be assured?  Will meaningful legal representation be part of reform?

In the speech itself, President Obama followed President Roosevelt's 1941 outline.  The first set of future challenges he addressed centered on equality of opportunity.  He cited universal pre-K and more affordable higher education, key components of children's human rights and the human right to education.  On the second major issue, economic opportunity, the president spoke of wage equity, portability of benefits, paid leave and a higher minimum wage as needed reforms to address a changing workforce and to ensure freedom from want.  

Discussing security, President Obama focused internationally rather than domestically.  Here, he departed from President Roosevelt's focus on wartime preparations and instead commented on international developments that have a profound effect on international human rights implementation, and indeed, the viability of the international human rights system.  He decried isolationism, but at the same time observed that the role of the nation state has declined, and "the international system built after World War II is struggling to keep pace."  Again, without offering any specifics, he urged that it is "up to the United States to remake that system."  Yet in describing his administration's efforts to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and other terrorist groups and individuals, President Obama glossed over any human rights issues that his approach might raise.

Finally, in perhaps the most effective portion of the address, President Obama followed Roosevelt's lead and turned to "ending the special privilege for the few," and "preserving civil liberties for all."  With veiled references to the Koch brothers, the president called for bipartisan efforts to reform campaign finance laws and ensure that elections are not controlled by a few wealthy families.  He called on all Americans to champion the fundamental right to vote.  And he decried broad political rhetoric that brands individuals based on religion and curbs civil liberties.

There were some notable omissions from President Obama's address.  He did not, for example, dwell on issues of race, even though this was a year of significant racial tension in American cities.  And he did not utter the phrase "human rights" even one time, though many of the themes that he sounded resonated in human rights terms. 

In his first innaugural address, President Roosevelt delivered the famous admonition that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  President Obama's speech, though short on specifics, directly challenged the fears that motivate so many current debates over borders, voting, religious freedom and even social supports and climate change.  America's economy is strong, he said, and our military is unsurpassed.  President Obama urged us to reject fear, arguing that we are resourceful and creative, and we need not fear diversity.  This effort to replace fear with hope as a basis for American domestic and foreign policy may be the biggest contribution that the 2016 State of the Union speech made to the cause of US human rights.    

 

 

 

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