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The United States Must Lead on Human Rights

By Margaret Huang

It can be easy to get caught up in complex legal theories when discussing human rights and the United States’ place in the world. But it’s actually pretty clear: We know the difference between right and wrong. It’s what parents teach their children every day, and it’s what the U.S. shows the world — or not — through its actions.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew it was wrong to gather more than 100,000 law-abiding Japanese Americans and imprison them in camps in remote parts of the country for months and even years. But he did it anyway.

The top U.S. officials who ordered the torture of hundreds of people after the September 11 attacks knew what they were doing was unlawful. And some of the people they ordered to carry out the abuse believed it was wrong. Several of them have since come forward and said so to the media and to Congress.

Media outlets that amplify and echo the calls from public figures and elected officials to ban all Muslims from entering this country or to subject all Muslims to surveillance, regardless of whether there’s any reason to suspect them of a crime, know that these proposals are completely unlawful and run counter to this country’s best ideals. But they treat them like serious proposals, and open up a space for racism and fear to drive this country’s policies.

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In the context of denying people their human rights — and having a national debate that treats systemic human rights abuses like a serious, viable option — American officials continue to try to tell other countries how to protect people’s human rights. It’s hard to get the government of China to stop persecuting people for practicing their chosen religion while the U.S. is having a national conversation about banning all members of one religion from entering the country.

What happens when U.S. elected officials, political leaders, and influential institutions choose what’s wrong over what’s right? In each of these examples, the consequences have been significant and damaging. The lessons taught are that fear or racism are good bases for policy-making, and that human rights abuses can be justified in the name of national interests. We have ignored the simple lessons about right and wrong.

America should be a leader on human rights, which means that all people should be treated fairly and with dignity. Leading on human rights means making sure that all people — no matter who they are or where they are — are free to live their lives and pursue their dreams, without any barriers, discrimination, or fear.

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Specifically, leading on human rights means protecting and welcoming refugees and helping other countries do the same. It means ensuring that all people have equal opportunities in jobs and health care. It means making sure that the justice system is fair and treats everyone equally, and that nobody is punished for their nonviolent political or religious beliefs.

In all of these areas, elected officials make decisions every day that either bring us closer to protecting human rights or farther away. They need to lead on human rights more often. That’s what most Americans want — regardless of background or political affiliation. The overwhelming majority of Americans support freedom of speech, a fair criminal justice system, and equality for all people — and fully 77% of people think the U.S. should be the world’s leader in promoting human rights around the world, according to a Harris poll conducted for Human Rights First.

Amnesty International USA’s new campaign, The America I Believe In, outlines how the U.S. can live up to its best ideals, domestically and as a world leader. Particularly with respect to refugees and national security policy, the campaign outlines how the U.S. can respond with compassion and common sense rather than fear — and why the need for leadership is so urgent, with 60 million people globally displaced from their homes because of conflict and violence, and millions of American Muslims and immigrants at risk of discrimination and violence in the U.S.

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Congress, the Obama Administration, and state legislators must enact policies that help refugees resettle safely in the U.S. and other countries. Fear and bigotry won’t make the U.S. safer, and federal policymakers must resist calls to increase the use of torture, profiling, and suspicionless surveillance.

What’s right and wrong could not be more clear. The U.S. must protect human rights. People in this country and around the world won’t settle for less.

Margaret Huang is the Interim Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.

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