After two weeks behind the curve on the uprising in Egypt, the Obama administration seems to have found it’s voice, recognizing that our national interests and our national values point in the same direction—toward democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. There are reasons to worry about the kind of regime that will emerge in Cairo. But promoting those three principles will serve our nation well in supporting the Egyptian people and engaging whatever government they ultimately choose.
The same is true here at home. While most Americans will, thankfully, never face the kind of abuses that Egyptians have endured under Hosni Mubarak, upholding human rights in the U.S. remains equally important. Our justice system, for example, presents multiple challenges.
Despite the progress we’ve made as a nation, people are often treated differently in our criminal justice system based on how much money they have or the color of their skin. Police in some parts of the country still use mass raids that arrest many individuals without specific proof or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Arizona has required police to stop people who “look” like they are undocumented immigrants, and other states and municipalities are following suit. And others still imprison youths who’ve committed crimes to life in prison without the opportunity for rehabilitation or the possibility for parole. If those violations of the American right to due process and fairness can happen to one of us in this country, they can happen to any of us.
Human rights violations occur in other aspects of American life as well. Despite the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” rule, for example, gay and lesbian Americans still face significant discrimination, bullying, and hate crimes. And millions of American children each year are relegated to neglected, ineffective schools, despite our national promise of equal educational opportunity for all.
While the Obama administration has only modest influence over events in Egypt, it has significant tools at its disposal to protect rights here in the United States. For example, it has rightly beefed up the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which is charged with ensuring equal protection of the laws.
Another important reform that’s long overdue is a Presidential Executive Order on human rights in the U.S. The order would coordinate efforts by the Justice Department, which protects human rights at home, and the State Department, which promotes human rights around the world. It would foster improved systems to protect the right to due process and against discrimination, including in U.S. localities where they are at particular risk. It would show that we are practicing what we preach. And it would reaffirm our national belief that everyone is better off in a society that respects human rights than in one that ignores them.
A human rights executive order was expected many months ago, but appears to be mired in bureaucracy within the Executive Branch. Issuing it now, as millions of Americans watch everyday Egyptians risk their lives to demand the rights to free speech and democratic participation that we often take for granted, would set an important example for the world while protecting all Americans here at home.