The Nobel Peace Prize Committee surprised us all last week when it awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama a mere nine months into his presidency. While it cited “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” it’s clear that the committee meant this to be more than an acknowledgement of his bringing the United States back into the international fold. It meant it as a challenge for him to use his position to actually earn the Peace Prize.
His record on peace and human-rights issues has been mixed, yet it is early in his term in office and there are many opportunities for him to earn his prize. One area where he can do much better is international human-rights law.
The human-rights violations committed in recent years by U.S. personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere have been many and varied. They have included enforced disappearance, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (in some cases resulting in death in custody); prolonged incommunicado detention, as well as other forms of arbitrary and indefinite detention; secret international transfers of detainees without due process (“rendition”); and flagrantly unfair trials.
Hence the United States has violated treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). The United States is a party to all of them.
I’ve made a list of tasks regarding these abuses by which President Obama could perhaps earn his Nobel Peace Prize:
• Charge Guantanamo detainees and give them fair trials in U.S. federal courts, or release them.
President Obama has indicated that he might try Guantanamo inmates in front of military tribunals instead of U.S. federal courts. Such trials have been widely criticized in the international community as unfair and would probably not be suffice to meet our international treaty obligations to provide fair trials. He has also endorsed indefinite detentions, which are a violation of international human-rights standards as well as the principles on which the United States was founded. Handling the inmates by respecting their basic right to due process would be a necessary step toward redeeming our nation in the eyes of the world community and earning any peace prize.
• Respect the rights of detainees at other U.S. facilities, like Bagram in Afghanistan.
Current policies still have loopholes for torture and abuse and, according to Amnesty International, U.S. detention facilities at Bagram and other facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq do not meet human-rights standards.
• Ensure that the United States will never again resort to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment — as defined by international law.
According to the recently released bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report, the previous administration’s Office of Legal Counsel “distorted the meaning and intent of anti-torture laws” and “rationalized the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody.” The Bush administration went out of its way to distort and undermine the legal meaning of torture to provide a thin veil of legality to its abuses. Congress, meanwhile, failed badly in its role as a watchdog.
The Obama administration must work with Congress to remedy this situation by improving transparency and oversight. This obligation is set out in the previously mentioned ICCPR and UNCAT.
Preventing these abuses from recurring would entail showing that such abuses have serious consequences for the perpetrators. This leads me to another requirement Obama’s earning his Nobel Prize:
• Ensure accountability for torture and other human-rights violations through an independent commission of inquiry; prosecutions where warranted; and redress and remedy for victims.
Several documentary films, such as “Torturing Democracy,” have made a solid case that U.S. officials committed crimes under international law and that the widespread violations of human rights in the context of countering terrorism — including torture and enforced disappearance — were authorized at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Rather than hold these officials accountable, President Obama has stated that he wants “to look forward rather than backwards” and let bygones be bygones. Such a blanket pardon on critical human-rights issues is not worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. Furthermore, the U.S. government has a legal obligation to prosecute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and UNCAT. Establishing a commission of inquiry and following through on its recommendations would live up to these obligations and help hold perpetrators of abuse accountable.
• Produce and publish all remaining relevant policy memos that argued for, documented, and established the basis for coercive interrogation, detainee treatment and policy in the last administration.
Our nation and the world as a whole have much to learn from their response to terrorist threats. Lawyers for the Obama administration have already invoked the state secrets doctrine several times to prevent documents from being used in court, even though the general content of those documents is already widely known to the public. The Obama administration needs to do a better job than that of improving transparency. It is important that we expose the truth about the abuses that were committed in our name and hold the guilty responsible so that these abuses do not happen again.
So there you have it: Five things the Obama administration can and should do to earn his Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, “peace” is a broader issue than torture and enforced disappearances. I have focused on these issues because they flagrantly damaged the cause of world peace and are well within Obama’s purview to remedy. They set the bar at a bare minimum for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Aaron Tovo is a Twin Cities human-rights activist with Amnesty International.