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Human rights defenders call for new direction in U.S. policy

Leading human rights defenders, including a visiting professor at Indiana University Bloomington, sent a clear message last month to President-elect Barack Obama: Renew the U.S. commitment to human rights principles and practices that, the activists said, were abandoned after Sept. 11, 2001.

Human Rights Conference

Saad Eddin Ibrahim makes a point during a December human rights forum at the Carter Center.

Print-Quality Photo

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a visiting professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law -- Bloomington and a visiting professor of political sociology, joined former President Jimmy Carter and human rights defenders from around the world in the Carter Center forum that gave rise to the statement.

Ibrahim, who is from Egypt, is a leading advocate for human rights in the Middle East. He was imprisoned from 2000 through 2003 for allegedly tarnishing Egypt's international image, though he was later acquitted by Egypt's High Court and exonerated on all charges. In August 2008, he was sentenced in absentia in Egypt to two years in prison with hard labor after writing a critical op-ed piece in the Washington Post.

With human rights catastrophes unfolding in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and elsewhere, the human rights defenders said, "It is essential that the United States restore its good reputation on human rights so that it can once again be an effective force in addressing these and future human rights challenges."

The statement was produced in the year of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by members of the United Nations under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt.

"In our efforts to defend ourselves against terror, the United States has abandoned the human rights principles it has long championed," Carter said. "We must renew our national commitment to human rights and encourage the international community to support the work of human rights defenders worldwide, whose efforts have been undermined by the U.S. example in recent years."

The group called on Obama and the U.S. government to:

  • End the policy of indefinite detention without due process for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
  • Enforce existing law prohibiting torture by any agent of the U.S. government.
  • Establish an independent, nonpartisan commission to examine U.S. interrogation practices.
  • Place human rights issues at the center of bilateral relationships with other countries.
  • Take part in robust engagement with the UN Human Rights Council, which must be the pre-eminent forum for human rights.

The forum at the Carter Center in Atlanta brought together leading human rights defenders from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Indonesia, Columbia, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Nigeria, as well as leaders of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other organizations.

Ibrahim, founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Cairo, is one of 13 human rights defenders featured on the Carter Center's Web site. The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Ibrahim has written or edited more than 30 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and has taught at DePauw, UCLA, Columbia, NYU, American Universities of Beirut (AUB) and in Cairo (AUC) and Istanbul Kulture University.

With regard to U.S. relations with Egypt, the human rights defenders' statement says:

  • The U.S. must work toward having accountability replace impunity among governments worldwide; it can no longer support violators of human rights.
  • "Principled conditionality" should be the guiding policy for U.S. foreign aid; assistance should not be given to countries that engage in human rights abuses.

"The eyes of human rights defenders around the world are fixed hopefully on the new White House administration, looking for a renewed commitment to human rights as it re-engages the world," the statement concludes.

For more information and to read the complete statement, see