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Posted: December 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Carter calls for Obama to take action on human rights

Panel marks 60th anniversary of U.N. Declaration of Human Rights

Mandi Singer/

Elder statesman: Former President Jimmy Carter speaks to a group gathered at The Carter Center Dec. 3 for a panel on "Restoring rights and rules: A new human rights agenda for the United States."

At a panel discussion on human rights at the Carter Center on Wednesday, former President Jimmy Carter said President-elect Barack Obama should immediately sign an executive order forbidding all American agencies from engaging in torture.

Carter also said steps by a President Obama should be quickly taken to close Guantanamo Bay and to sign several international covenants that President George Bush has delayed signing including one on the rights of children.

"My hope is that when January 20th comes, that we’ll have a clear indication that our country will no longer torture people, that our country will no longer abandon the international commitments that we’ve made to honor the convention from Geneva of protecting prisoners," Carter said.

Using the stark language he has become well-known for in recent years and that has earned him wide disparagement from the right, Carter hailed the end of President George Bush’s administration, calling it "the most disastrous human rights administration that the United States has ever seen."

Carter’s remarks were part of the Center for Civil & Human Rights weeklong celebration of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Carter said one of the most disturbing things to watch during the Bush administration was the large public support shown towards some of the practices pursued in America’s War on Terror, such as the suspension of habeas corpus for suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay and the controversial interrogation technique of water boarding.

"It happened on our watch," Carter told the audience, made up largely of human rights activists from across the world and the country. "We were unable to mobilize enough people to turn it around. We overestimated our strength."

Carter said human rights proponents should never again take for granted American support and must aggressively pursue a dialogue with the Obama administration and with the American people "so they understand the damages done and implications to people in the rest of the world" of the last eight years of lax human rights standards.

Director of Amnesty International USA Larry Cox said the human rights community should also look further back than the Bush administration to decisions made in the Clinton administration that contravened human rights.

"Let it be known that the United States does not consider itself separate," said Cox who called for a Congressional commission to be formed with subpoena power to investigate human rights abuses and the ability to make recommendations to Congress. "I think it will take the American people saying ‘we want to know what was done in our name.’"

Karen Ryan, director of the Carter Center’s Human Rights Program, said that the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq depicting prisoners being abused by their American guards were "just the tip of the iceberg" of human rights violations perpetuated by the United States in recent years.

"There is damage and it’s not as simple as issuing an executive order," Ryan said of the work facing the Obama Administration in repairing the United States’ foreign image.

Panelist Saad Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist who was jailed for three years by President Hosni Mubarak for calling for free elections, warned the audience not to grow complacent in taking America’s heritage of protecting human rights for granted.

"It pained me that America came down the mountain to the great abyss with torture and the tales of Abu Ghraib and the refusal to sign [the international accord for the rights of children]," Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim said the United States should be prepared to accept the results of all burgeoning democratization movements fostered recently in the Middle East with the support of President Bush, even if the elections bring more Islamists to power as they have in the Palestinian Territories and in Lebanon.

"When you encourage democracy, when you institute democracy, you should be willing to accept the outcome, even if you don’t like it," he said.

Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the United States needs to bring accountability back to its government to send a message to oppressive governments around the world that their own human rights violations are no longer acceptable.

"The culture of impunity has to stop all over the world," Samar said.

The panelists all agreed that human rights proponents should not sit back and assume that the Obama Administration would pursue all of the recommended changes in U.S. human rights policy.

"If we just rely on this good will and intentions [from the Obama administration], we will be disappointed. We have to be vigilant," Ibrahim said.

Added Carter, "I don’t have any doubt that Barack Obama’s motivations aren’t compatible with what we’ve said tonight but we can’t take him for granted. We need to give him our support."

Carter said he would like to see President-elect Obama appoint someone to the State Department known as the Human Rights Representative who would have direct access to the president to make recommendations on human rights policy.

He also said President-elect Obama should "support the United Nations for a change."

Added Ryan, "When the most powerful nation in the world reclaims its mantle of leadership, we can improve peacekeeping at the United Nations."


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