Human Rights and the Election, Part 4:Getting your issue in there

Of all the questions posed to presidential candidates, only 5% are about human rights.

That’s according to a report recently released by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. But of that 5%, Darfur was an issue that was repeatedly addressed. In fact 23% of the human rights questions posed to Democrats were about Darfur, ( only 0.7% of those posed to Republicans)

So why does Darfur get all the attention?

Because its coming from the electorate, according to Gayle Smith, co-founder of ENOUGH!. “I’ve worked in Africa for many years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Coby Rudolph, National Outreach Coordinator for the Save Darfur Coalition said they’ve approached the presidential campaign with several goals:

  1. Inject Darfur into the dialogue in the presidential campaign. Opportunities for this came from debate, forums and the media. For example in Iowa, Save Darfur hired a full time organizer to engage political reporters, mobilize activists to ask specific questions about Darfur, and on caucus night, people across the state of Iowa took platform planks into the caucuses to get Darfur into the party platforms.
  2. Influence the specific policy positions and priorities of the candidates. Save Darfur came at this with the reality that one of these people will be the next president of the United States. So they have already begun targeting the candidates on what their policies toward Darfur will be. One media example of this would be a billboard ad in the New Hampshire airport. When candidates got off their planes, they saw a billboard with a photograph of a young refugee girl. The text read, “You’re running for president. She is running for her life.” Save Darfur also took out full page ads in several newspapers (especially in Iowa and NH) with signatures of activists and those concerned about Darfur. Signatories included congressman Bruce Braley, religious leaders, and other grasstops.
  3. Inform voters on candidates’ positions. Save Darfur activists have tracked candidates’ statements on Darfur and posted them on their website. They also invited each candidate to post a short video with their statements on Darfur. Those who have not submitted a video have a link next to their name where site visitors can ask them for their views on Darfur.
  4. Mobilize local activists. The presidential campaign has proven to be a great way to engage activists and volunteers, because they can break things up into manageable goals. Rather than try to solve all the problems of Darfur, volunteers and activists can focus on tangible results, such as reaching specific candidates, influencing campaigns, getting certain questions asked in debates, etc.
  5. Demonstrate a constituency of conscience.
  6. Influence the current administration and congress. Save Darfur has not forgotten that things can be done now, before the next president is sworn in.

So how about you- what human rights issue do you care about?

Is it being addressed by the candidates?
Do you know how the candidates feel about that issue?

Have you talked about it with people you know?

Human Rights and the Election, Part 3: Obstacles and hope

In a recent report, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, found that only 5% of questions posed to presidential candidates were about human rights. A panel was put together to discuss these findings, and in this 3rd installment, I’ll share what Gayle Smith, co-founder of ENOUGH! had to say.

“It is sad, but true,” she started, “that human rights do not make good politics, certainly in a campaign environment.” But, she added this could be changed.

But before we can change anything, we have to understand why we in this situation now.


The American public has 2 impediments when it comes to human rights – 1) indifference, 2) they believe it is intractable. The good news is that people are less indifferent that they have been in the past. But the bad news is they still think these problems can’t be changed.

And you won’t find a candidate who will say, “I’m going to solve these problems.” They just can’t risk it.

Time Frame

A second problem is time frame. Human rights crises take a long time to resolve. When you compare that to a administration cycle (4 or 8 years) and especially in a campaign cycle, they are just not compatible. “It’s a process, and its hard to campaign around a process.”


Human rights is presented as a stand alone issue, but in reality it is part of many issues:

  • the opinion of the US in the world
  • stability
  • security
  • democracy
  • intervention and the use of power
  • international cooperation
  • engagement with the rest of the world

The human rights advocacy community should work on integrating their messages into other issues, Smith suggested.

Cohesion (lack of)

There is no perception of an articulated constituency. And in the election debate, candidates have to balance between being strong and soft. Human rights is perceived a soft (Carter was often thought of as soft and naive). After 9/11, the pressure for the president to be tough is even higher. The candidates feel that pressure.


“Our media covers human rights in a way that injects it into the debate, but they fail to ask the really hard questions,” Smith says. “Like about the trade-offs between rights and stability.”

What can be done?

So what would it take to change things? Three things:

  1. A change coming from the electorate. “Darfur is as high as it is [in the report] not because of the media or the policymakers, but because Americans have kept it on the agenda.
  2. Soft power/smart power – “the notion that we need a set of tools and approaches in foreign policy that extend beyond the military”
  3. A shift in values – “From values as a matter of personal choice, to values as an expression of solidarity and citizenship.” Some of this, she pointed out, can be seen now in some religious communities.

We used to think of human rights as an issue that other countries had to deal with, but unfortunately, Ms. Smith pointed out, human rights is an issue we now face at home.

Human rights and the election, Part 1:Is a Human rights president a weak president?

Its not likely that you would find a presidential candidate that is against human rights, and certainly during this election year there are plenty of human rights issues to be concerned about:

  • Darfur, 
  • Guantanamo, 
  • the International Criminal Court, 
  • torture
  • …just to name a few. 

And there is no shortage of opinions on what to do about all of these issues.So why is it that human rights issues take such a backseat in presidential campaigns?The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) found that so far, only 5% of questions posed to presidential candidates were about human rights issues. Earlier this week CAPAF hosted a panel discussion and released reports on its findings concerning human rights issues in the campaigns.In the next few posts, I will present what each of the panelists had to say on the subject. Feel free to comment! It should also be noted that this was not a partisan event – its was strictly a look at how human rights issues are addressed in a presidential election.  Karen De Young, associate Editor for the Washington Post was the first to speak, and she gave an overview of human rights in the context of the past in various presidencies. “There has been a long strain of exceptionalism in US reluctance to criticized when commerce or strategically important countries have been involved,” she continued. “Commercial interests have continued unabated as an influence on human rights policies, and the threat of communism has been replaced by the threat of terrorism.” “But I believe on balance, in varying degrees, for self interest and altruism, for conservative reasons and liberal ones, in fits and starts, and ups and downs, the United States for many years had a legitimate claim to being considered a positive force for human rights in the world. And it was recognized as such. Others criticized it, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. The death penalty is something abhorred by our closest allies, our massive prison population is justifiably denounced, a favorite Soviet response to US human rights criticism was to point out the historical treatment of people of color…”The difference now, is that the United States is not only accused of failing to live up to its high ideals, cutting corners and putting strategic and commercial interests above human rights concerns; it is accused of intentionally violating many of the very specific rules of decency and law for which we have long criticized others: torture, secret detention, suspension of legal rights, disdain for international treaties and conventions.”In the current election, Ms. DeYoung says, free trade will continue to be a major discussion. She believes there are economic arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. The next president like those before, will have to find that balance – and it won’t be perfect.”Despite our belief that we have the responsibility to feed the hungry and protect the abused, we’ll never do enough to help people in places like Darfur,” she continued. “We’ll always be straddling the fence to some degree.”All of the current candidates, she points out are against torture, but none of them can agree on its definition. Everyone is against human suffering such as that in Darfur, but “history has shown many times over that when faced with the very real tensions between competing priorities in office as opposed to on the campaign, we simply don’t know what a president is going to do.””But the arguments are important and we all need to continue to press our government and our candidates to use US power and resources to express our better self as a nation.” 

The “Youngest” Elder

Closeup, smiling

It’s not often that an 83 year old is introduced as young and energetic. But that’s exactly how Jimmy Carter was described when he was introduced to a small audience of students, faculty and staff at American University. The 39th president was on the Washington DC campus Wednesday (10/24) to spell out what is going on in Sudan, and what he and his new group, The Elders, are doing to help bring peace to the region.

In late September, just days before Carter’s 83rd birthday, he was visiting a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sudan. This trip was not Carter’s first to the region. In fact, he has visited Sudan at least once a year since 1988. But it was his first visit as a member of The Elders, a newly formed group of former statesmen and women, who have come together to try to address some of the world’s biggest issues.

During his 45 minute speech, Carter gave a complete and concise background on the issues in Sudan. Without any notes, he explained in great detail the politics between the North and the South in the troubled country, what is happening in Darfur, and what he thinks will help bring peace to the region.

Carter and the rest of the Elders are working closely with the governments in Sudan, in both the North and the South to work towards a long-term resolution. “Our number one hope is that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement can be maintained,” Carter explained. “It’s a complex, troubling situation, and we hope that the Elders can at least induce the international community to retain an intense interest there and to punish with threats and other means, any organized group or leader who might threaten either the Darfur Peace Agreement or the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.”

And it would help, according to Carter, if the United States would make human rights a bigger priority. When asked about the 2008 election, Carter did not hold back in his opinion of the current US policies.

“I hope that the next president will be a Democrat, in which case I think there will be an excellent chance of having an all out effort on a global basis to promote peace and not preemptive war. And my hope is that this present, worldwide lack of confidence in America to do this can be alleviated.”

He then outlined three things the next president could say in his/her inaugural address that would make, what he called, a drastic difference. “First of all the United States will abandon the new policy of preemptive war, and we will not go to war unless our own security is directly threatened. Secondly, the United States, will never again torture prisoners or abandon the international restraints on the proper treatment of those who are incarcerated. Third, the US will begin … to promote a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

“I hope the next president will also announce that the United States will take the leadership on a global basis to protect the environment and to deal as effectively as possible in combating global warming…and I would hope the next president would say once again, as our nation has done in the past, ‘We will raise high the banner of human rights.’”

With just these few meaningful statements, Carter explained, we could change the world’s perception of the US, and then lead the international community in helping to solve problems like those in Sudan.

He did credit the Bush administration for its part in working towards the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. That work, it turns out was a “favor” that Carter had asked for. After the 2000 elections, he said “I was as troubled as all the other Democrats” about the Supreme Court’s decision on the 2000 election, putting Bush in office. But he and his wife Rosalynn decided they should go up to Washington for the inauguration. “I believe it is accurate to say that we were the only two volunteer Democrats on the reviewing stand,” he joked.

But he explained that they felt welcomed, and at one point President Bush thanked him for coming and asked if there was anything he could do for Carter. He replied, “I only have one request, and it will probably be the only request I’ll ever make to you while you are in office, and that it to try to bring peace to Sudan. And he did. He did the best he could. He appointed former Senator Jon Danforth, from Missouri, who took charge of the negotiation, and they finally concluded what is presently know as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and the South. And it has resulted in, in effect, a sustained, but fragile ceasefire, there are no more battles going on. And this opened up an opportunity, by the way, for the Carter Center to go into the South and carry out some projects in health and agriculture.”

Carter hopes that his involvement, both through the Elders and the Carter Center, he can help restore peace to Sudan. But he knows it will be a long road. The Carter Center is considering the prospect of assisting in the Sudanese elections, scheduled for 2009. And the Elders have offered to serve as mediators between the opposing governments.

Regardless of capacity, it can be certain, that as long as he is able, President Carter will be helping the people of Sudan, and the rest of the world. And at 83 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.

The entire speech can be viewed here.

World Refugee Day (ii)

Afghan Refugee

June 20 is World Refugee Day. What do you know about the world’s refugee problem? Did you know there are more than 40 MILLION refugees in the world today? And that rather than shrinking, that number is growing? Between 2005 and 2006, the number of refugees increased 14% to a total of 9.9 million!
The largest group were the 2.1 million Afghans still living outside their homeland. The Iraqis were second, followed by 686,000 Sudanese; Somalis, 460,000 and people from Congo and Burundi, about 400,000 each. (The 9.9 million total does not include the 4.3 million Palestinian refugees nor 24.5 million internally displased persons, who are basically refugees who have fled to other parts of their own country)

In Quetta, Pakistan, the government and UNHCR are agressively working on repatriating Afghan refugees by closing two camps, Pir Alizai by July 31 and Girdi Jungle, by August 31. These are in addition to the camp closings along the North Waziristan tribal area near the border by the end of this month.

The fastest growing population of refuess is Iraqi. Nearly 4 million people have been displaced by violence- 1.9 million within Iraq, and 2 million to neighboring countries. And those countries, Jordan, Lebenona, and Syria are beginning to feel the strain of hosting these new populations. According to Refugees International, “Syria and Jordan are rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the numbers of Iraqis seeking refuge in their urban centers. Jordan, Lebanon and Syria consider Iraqis as ‘guests’ rather than refugees fleeing violence. None of these countries allows Iraqis to work. Although Syria is maintaining its “open door policy” in the name of pan-Arabism, it has begun imposing restrictions on Iraqi refugees, such as charges for healthcare that used to be free. In Jordan, Iraqis have to pay for the most basic services, and live in constant fear of deportation. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for Iraqis to enter Jordan or to renew their visas to remain in country.”

And of course, there is Darfur. Years of fighting and violence has displaced more than 2 million people in the region, killed more than 400,00 and the violence continues.

In addition to protecting and capacity building, advocacy is one of the UNHCR’s major tasks. And how does one advocate in the 21st century? Video, the internet and email are a major part of today’s refugee advocacy.

Darfur Is Dying is the result of competition bringing together technology and activism to help stop the genocide in Darfur. It is a “narrative based simulation where the user, from the perspective of a displaced Darfurian, negotiates forces that threaten the survival of his/her refugee camp.”

Eyes on Darfur is an amazing project by Amnesty International using high resolution satellite imagery to let you literally watch over 12 highly vulnerable villages in the conflict region. It is definatley worth a visit. Also available on the site is a way to send a letter to the Sudanese president and Ambassador in support of protecting these villages.

The Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) has a page that allows you to email your congressional representatives to encourage them to pass legislation to:
-Sufficient funding for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UN agencies
-Support for host governments and non-governmental organizations to provide shelter, health, nutrition, education, and other needs
– To protect the most vulnerable Iraqis such as women-headed households, unaccompanied children, or those in danger because they worked for the U.S. or a related Western organization.

Many humanitarian organizations have email campaigns. Make sure you check with your favorite to see if they have a special campaign for World Refugee Day.

Film & Video
Film is a very powerful media and it can be used for both education and advocacy.
FilmAid International‘s mission is to use the power of film to promote health, strengthen communities and enrich the lives of the world’s vulnerable and uprooted. In East Africa, Afghanistan, Macedonia and the US gulf Coast, FilmAid Int’l has several programs, including evening feature screenings, daytime educational screenings, a participatory video project called “My Reel Life,” and a youth video exchange project for displaced hurricane Katrina victims.

To learn more about refugees, and their lives and struggles, whether in camps, repatriated to their home country or relocated to a new one, PBS’s Point of View Documentary series has two new films airing this season.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
If the refugee is today’s tragic icon of a war-torn world, then Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a reggae-inflected band born in the camps of West Africa, represents a real-life story of survival and hope. The six-member Refugee All Stars came together in Guinea after civil war forced them from their native Sierra Leone. Traumatized by physical injuries and the brutal loss of family and community, they fight back with the only means they have — music. The result, as shown in “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars,” is a tableau of tragedy transformed by the band’s inspiring determination to sing and be heard. A Diverse Voices Project co-production.

Rain in a Dry Land
How do you measure the distance from an African village to an American city? What does it mean to be a refugee in today’s “global village”? “Rain in a Dry Land” provides eye-opening answers as it chronicles the fortunes of two Somali Bantu families transported by relief agencies from years of civil war and refugee life to Atlanta, Georgia, and Springfield, Massachusetts.