President Obama’s early moves to condemn torture, order the closure of Guantanamo and commit to combat climate change won him accolades from international human rights advocates turned off by the go-it-alone attitude of the Bush administration.
Now the world’s lawyers are worried that those goals could languish on the diplomatic back burner as the president and his team concentrate on the global economic crisis.
Champions of the environment and the law concede that Obama has a lot on his plate, but impatience is setting in following missed opportunities in recent weeks to signal a new direction on fighting terrorism and global warming.
Legal experts have been able to do little more than shake hands and give cursory review to their differences at international gatherings such as the Group of 20 economic summit in London, an international law forum in Washington and the U.N. climate conference in Bonn, Germany.
Since the Bush administration declared its war on terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks, rights activists have spoken out against the indefinite detention and harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo.
At least a dozen nations have signaled they are willing to help hasten Guantanamo’s closure by taking in some prisoners no longer considered a security threat yet faced with torture or execution if returned to their home countries. During Obama’s meetings with world leaders in London this month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would accept an Algerian detainee. But other nations are waiting to see what Washington is willing to do, pointing to U.S. failure to grant asylum to 17 Uighurs cleared for release years ago who could face persecution in China.
“It’s a political question in our country as to whether we should take people when the United States has not yet, in spite of this being a problem of their own making,” said Andreas Paulus, a law professor at Germany’s Goettingen University.
“The view many abroad have of the United States now is that they use international law when it suits them and drop it when it doesn’t,” said Paulus.
Humanitarian law experts say they expect to see a return to compliance with the Geneva Convention and other pacts within the law of war by U.S. armed forces fighting against those deemed terrorists.
Yoram Dinstein, a Tel Aviv University international law professor, describes the violence inflicted on civilians by U.S. bombing raids of suspected terrorist hideouts as willful disregard for treaty obligations.
“You can kill all the combatants you want. What you are not allowed to do is cause collateral damage — civilian casualties,” said Dinstein, who sees little change in U.S. war fighting since Obama’s inauguration.