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The President and Human Rights


The President and Human Rights

Once a year, as mandated by the Constitution, the President of the United States gives an address to Congress updating them on the state of the union. Over time, much ceremony and tradition has been attached to the State of the Union and every year it is broadcast on television, radio, and internet with political commentators and pundits listening to every word, waiting to give their verdict of what the speech means and what the country should prepare for in the working of Congress for the next year.

Clearly, the State of the Union is drafted and delivered for a domestic audience; though foreign policy topics are often touched upon, it is rarely the focus or purpose of the address. Nonetheless, it is always interesting to parse what gets included as there is frequently a broad human rights undertone to these examples. However this undertone also raises just as many questions about what isn’t included and this year was no exception.

Not surprisingly, countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all got a mention, though probably much shorter than many analysts expected given the level of US involvement in those states. Even more surprising was just the passing mention of Iran and North Korea, both of whom have dominated foreign policy discussions in recent years. Instead, more recent events received the bulk of the foreign policy focus.

This month’s referendum on Southern Sudan earned an entire paragraph from the president. Though less than that monumental event deserves, it did offer a rare opportunity to highlight the benefits of peaceful conflict resolution. It should be also noted that highlighting Southern Sudan while not mentioning the ongoing conflict in Darfur may also be a small diplomatic gesture to Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir whose cooperation is necessary to ensure successful secession of Southern Sudan.

However the mention of Southern Sudan also provided a theme of freedom that carried on to his mention of recent events in North Africa. There was plenty of speculation Tuesday on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter regarding whether Tunisia would get a mention. In the end, the recent uprising in Tunisia did get a nod of approval in one of the stronger statements released by a Western government since the fall of President Ben Ali earlier this month:

“And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

However, while Obama pledged to stand with the people of Tunisia and support democratic aspirations everywhere, on that night the aspirations of Egyptians who hosted Tunisia-styled demonstrations earlier that day against their own dictatorial government went ignored.

Thus, the foreign policy focus of this year’s State of the Union left a lot to be desired by many people. However that does not mean that human rights did not feature prominently in other ways. What this speech will likely be known for in the future is the public reaffirmation of the accepted place American Muslims have at the American table of plurality and the celebration of the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy against openly gay servicemen. In the face of growing Islamophobia throughout the West and ongoing discrimination faced by the LGBT community, these two declarations may have been short in length but have tremendous weight when said on the keynote speech of the year.

And so in the end while commentators will continue to discuss what didn’t make it into the speech, it is important to note what did. None of the events or causes mentioned above are less deserving of the attention of the world’s current superpower than others. With as many considerations that go into drafting this speech every year, it’s kind of amazing that human rights consistently make it into the address every year with more than just empty promises regarding their place in the world. In the ongoing analyses and deconstructions of Tuesday night, that too should not be forgotten.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa