News / Middle East

US Human Rights Record Mixed, Activists Say

Barbed wire fence at the Camp Delta detention compound which houses foreign prisoners since 2002 at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba
Barbed wire fence at the Camp Delta detention compound which houses foreign prisoners since 2002 at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba

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Elizabeth Lee

On December 10, the world will celebrate Human Rights Day. It marks the anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly's adoption, in 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even though the United States is a democratic society with rights including speech, religion and equal justice before the law, some human rights activists say the U.S. is still guilty of human rights abuses.

John Bolton, the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations is a strong defender of the U.S. on human rights.

"We are the most vigorous defenders of human rights and individual liberty in the world today or in all of world history," said Bolton.

"No country in the entire world is perfect on human rights," countered Professor Hadar Harris, Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University. Harris criticizes the US, saying, for one, that detainees still remain at Guantanamo Bay even after President Barack Obama said he would close the detention center.

"We have people who have been kept in Guantanamo without charge incommunicado without appropriate monitoring for many years," she added. "I think it's incumbent upon us as human rights activists in the United States the international community to hold this administration's feet very much to the fire on the closure of Guantanamo and establishing appropriate due process protections and norms and try people who should be tried and release people who can't be."

But John Bolton says the U.S. can hold detainees because they are terrorists and prisoners of war.

"Even though the Geneva Convention only applies among the states, parties they don't apply to terrorist groups," Bolton said. "Even the Geneva Convention says you can hold a prisoner of war for the duration of the conflict. This global war on terrorism could take a long time. If the terrorists have chosen the wrong side and find themselves at Guantanamo Bay for a long time, that's their problem not ours."

Hadar Harris also takes issue with the death penalty in the U.S.

"It is an issue of great concern as far as its application and its continued use. It would be good to have full abolition of the death penalty," said Harris.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 40 people convicted of murder have been executed in the U.S. this year.

But Michael Paranzino of the pro-death penalty group, Throw Away the Key, says giving convicted killers the death penalty gives families of murder victims some closure.

"That's where I think this debate has to be focused," said Paranzino. "The lasting harm to entire families when people are murdered."

Human rights activists also criticize the U.S. for not ratifying key U.N. treaties. While the majority of U.N. members have ratified the Convention to eliminate discrimination against women, so far the U.S. Senate has not.

"The convention on the rights of the child," Harris said. "We and Somalia are the only two countries in the world that has not ratified that treaty."

John Bolton says the U.S. already has laws that protect the rights of women and children.

"We can decide on the basis of our representative government what's appropriate," said Bolton. "We don't need an international treaty to tell us how to behave."

Bolton says those who are critical of the U.S. should focus on the human rights records of countries that are not democracies, such as Iran and China.

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