Human rights will set tone for Obama’s presidency

In the coming months, President-elect Barack Obama will assemble a foreign-policy team and begin the arduous process of listing global priorities, including the need for a new American image. Between now and Inauguration Day, that group should focus on critical issues that demand the incoming president’s sustained attention and creativity, starting with human rights.

This subject should be a natural for any American president. After all, the United States was born, struggled to its feet and defined itself in the context of a dramatic, historic and sweepingly consequential experiment with freedom. The evolving U.S. story can never escape its responsibility to be true to these noble origins.

My contention is that it never has. However, some U.S. leaders have demonstrated a bolder commitment to the nation’s ideals and principles than others. If Obama lives up to the promise of his campaign, he could join those in the vanguard of defending human rights.

One person who believes in that possibility is Naomi Tutu, whose father, former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, made his reputation as a human-rights champion. She, similarly, has chosen the protection of human dignity as her primary calling. And she brings a unique perspective to the discussion about the impending Obama administration, for she ranks among the few who have had the opportunity to bear witness to and participate in the shaping of two contemporary political marvels.

In 1994, Tutu voted in South Africa’s first free, inclusive election, casting her ballot for Nelson Mandela, who not long before had languished in prison as an enemy of the state. Mandela was elected president. Then, this year, she saw history unfold again, as she gave her nod to a once-dismissed candidate of partly African heritage, Obama, who soon thereafter became the U.S. president-elect.


Tutu’s advice to Obama is to make a difference by issuing a clear statement about the unwillingness of the United States, going forward, to use or condone torture, either directly or indirectly. The message that such a gesture would send to the rest of the world, Tutu says, is unambiguous: "Torture is wrong. Period." Obama has given every indication that he will live up to Tutu’s expectation.

The same is true for another of her wishes: closing the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. In Tutu’s view, the holding of prisoners in such a judicial gray area leaves an impression on the rest of humanity that Americans may not fully appreciate. It is inconsistent with the image that most people have of the United States and its guarantees, including the right to a fair trial. Shuttering the detention center and holding mainstream trials would send the proper signal, according to Tutu.

She would also like Obama to make human rights a top priority for his administration in a way that Americans have not seen since former President Jimmy Carter’s time. Although many people stateside might view Carter’s presidency as less than impressive, she says, the world has a different opinion, a favorable one due in large part to the sincere homage that he paid to human rights.

Additionally, Tutu hopes that Obama’s life experiences here and abroad, especially his minority status and mother’s economic hardship, have crystallized in him the idea that human rights are hardly an abstraction. Rather, they are about people’s realities. For him to declare that human rights are central to his administration’s philosophy would be to indicate that human needs and lives are essential, Tutu advises.

What else might Obama do in the human-rights realm?

Tutu likes the president-elect’s much-stated openness to sitting down with and talking to people who have been described as adversaries. "The de-humanization of those with whom we are in conflict, along with the attitude that they have nothing of value to share, has never served anyone well," she contends. Contrary to the perceptions of some, such an approach does not reveal a desire to capitulate quickly or concede too much, she says. Actually, it allows an opportunity to hear what the other side is saying, whether one ultimately agrees with it or not.

Is it not better, she asks, to act from a position of facts and knowledge, rather than to allow fear and loathing to serve as one’s guides?

To that, especially in terms of recasting America’s global image, I would say, "Unquestionably, yes."


John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.

What To Read Next
Get Local