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How the US Can Get its Groove Back

John Shattuck

One of the biggest challenges facing the next president is how to restore US credibility in the world. Despite military assets unparalleled in history, US global standing has hit rock bottom.

The United States government is widely perceived today to be a violator of human rights. A poll conducted by the British Broadcasting Corp. last year in 18 countries on all continents revealed that 67 percent disapproved of US detention and interrogation practices in Guantanamo. Another poll in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, and India found that majorities or pluralities condemned the United States for torture and other violations of international law. A third poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations showed that majorities in 13 countries, including traditional allies, believe "the US cannot be trusted to act responsibly in the world."

The gap between America's values and its actions has severely eroded US global influence. How does it get it back?

First, by obeying the law. The United States was founded on the rule of law. Human rights are defined and protected by the Constitution and international treaties ratified and incorporated into domestic law. By flouting basic rules - such as habeas corpus, the Convention Against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions - the US government has created a series of "law-free zones." In these zones detainees have been abused, thousands held indefinitely without charges, and human rights trampled on.

Second, by practicing what we preach. The United States loses credibility when it charges others with human rights violations that it is also committing. The State Department routinely criticizes other countries for engaging in torture, detention without trial, and warrantless electronic surveillance, despite its own recent abysmal record in these areas.

Fortunately, history shows that US influence in the world can be restored when its values and policies are brought into alignment. A series of bipartisan human rights initiatives during five recent presidencies - three Republican and two Democratic - enhanced the stature of American foreign policy.

President Gerald Ford signed the Helsinki Accords, leading to international recognition of the cause of human rights inside the Soviet bloc. President Jimmy Carter mobilized democratic governments to press for release of political prisoners by repressive regimes. President Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture and persuaded the Senate to ratify it. President George H.W. Bush joined with other governments in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to nurture new democracies of the post-Cold War era. And President Bill Clinton worked with NATO and the UN to implement the Genocide Convention and bring an end to the human rights catastrophe in the Balkans.

The next president can restore US influence by reconnecting the nation's values and policies on human rights and the rule of law. He should announce three initiatives.

Truth commission. At times in recent history the nation has created high-level commissions to probe national crises and make recommendations about how to prevent them in the future. Most notably, the Kerner Commission on race in the 1960s, the commission in the 1980s on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the commission on the events of 9/11 all addressed complex, controversial, and far-reaching national crises. A similar commission is needed to get the truth about recent abuses of human rights and the rule of law by the US government.

US Human Rights Commission. An institution that can monitor the US government's future compliance with the rule of law on human rights needs to be created. The next president should endorse legislation pending in Congress to establish a US Commission on Human Rights with oversight authority and subpoena power. The legislation would require the executive branch to provide regular reports to the commission on how it is complying with international human rights treaties such as the Torture Convention and the Geneva Conventions.

Law Enforcement. The most basic principle in the Constitution is that no person is above the law. The next president should direct the attorney general to uphold this principle by investigating and prosecuting any crimes that may have been committed involving the violation of fundamental human rights.

By recommitting the United States to a foreign policy under the rule of law, US moral leadership in the world can be restored, and by doing so, national security can be significantly strengthened.

John Shattuck, CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, and ambassador to the Czech Republic in the Clinton administration.

© Copyright 2008 The Boston Globe

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