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On Human Rights Day, PHR Highlights Priorities for the Administration

For Immediate Release

On Human Rights Day, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) highlighted the need for the U.S. government to address several pressing issues in order to protect fundamental freedoms and promote the United States’ position as a beacon for human rights.

The U.N. General Assembly proclaimed December 10 as Human Rights Day in 1950, bringing attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document that guarantees fundamental rights to all people.

“For the United States, Human Rights Day provides an opportunity to take stock of what still needs to be done to make human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign and domestic policy and develop concrete plans to make good on our promises,” said Donna McKay, PHR’s executive director. “While important progress has been made since the signing of this historic document, we have significant work to do: Guantánamo remains open, and indefinite detention and other policies that enable torture continue; health workers and facilities are regularly attacked during times of conflict; and fundamental rights continue to be violated around the globe.”

The White House last week released a fact sheet on the Obama administration’s role and progress on international human rights issues. While PHR acknowledged U.S. leadership in some areas – including the protection of LGBT rights, efforts to stop violence against women, and the promotion of Internet freedom – it stressed the need for the U.S. government to take critical steps to advance human rights in the United States and beyond. These include:

  • Closing Guantánamo and ending policies that enable torture. January 11 will mark the 12th anniversary of the day first detainees were brought to the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Despite President Obama’s promise to close the facility, it remains open with no closing date in sight, and violations continue to take place daily. Leaders from the American medical community recently sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to end the policy and practice of force-feeding of detainees – as it violates medical ethics – and to cease the indefinite detention of prisoners that has led to this form of protest. President Obama must immediately end force-feeding and use his authority to transfer eligible detainees out of Guantánamo without further delay.
  • Releasing the Senate CIA Torture Report and removing Appendix M of the 2006 Army Field Manual. Releasing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report is an important and necessary first step in demonstrating transparency and ensuring that the findings on the CIA’s interrogation techniques are made public. Additionally, Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, which authorizes abusive techniques that may amount to torture, must be removed to ensure that U.S. officials do not repeat past mistakes and violate detainees’ human rights in the future. Failure to demonstrate that the United States stands squarely against torture effectively condones the practice, undermining U.S. credibility and leadership on human rights globally.
  • Passing comprehensive immigration reform. President Obama should pressure Congress to pass the bi-partisan Senate bill (S.744), which contains key provisions that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.S. asylum system. The right to seek asylum from persecution is a fundamental and long-recognized human right. Barriers in the current system severely delay the asylum process and leave many asylum applicants in a distressing state of legal limbo. Some of these barriers result in compounded traumatization or denial of asylum claims when applicants are otherwise eligible and deserving of protection.
  • Stopping attacks on health in conflicts worldwide. An alarming number of medical personnel and facilities have come under attack in recent years simply for providing care to those in need. The most insidious example of this can be seen in Syria, and the United States and all nations must do everything possible to uphold the international taboo against attacks on those who care for the sick and wounded. By passing the Medical Neutrality Act of 2013, the U.S. government can help protect health workers globally during times of conflict and civil unrest and ensure that medical staff can provide services without fear of violence, retribution, or arrest.
  • Ensuring humanitarian access in Syria. In order to alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Syria, the U.S. government should negotiate with the Russian government to urgently create full and unfettered access for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other groups working to provide humanitarian assistance in the country. Such access is vital to ensuring that life-saving supplies and resources reach the growing number of people suffering as a result of the nearly three-year-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
  • Protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Burma. As the government of Burma embarks on political reforms and the United States implements a policy of engagement, Burma’s government must prioritize the protection of the country’s ethnic groups, including Rohingyas and other Muslims who have faced brutal violence and persecution. The United States should refrain from offering additional benefits to the Burmese government until the authorities properly address ongoing human rights violations against minority groups in the country.
  • Pressing the government of Bahrain to release imprisoned medics and stop the abuse of tear gas. Three medics remain behind bars and others face continued harassment and intimidation for their part in treating injured protesters in Bahrain. The United States should press the Bahraini government to immediately release the imprisoned health workers and provide reparation for those who faced arbitrary arrest, detention, abuse, and torture. The United States should continue to withhold export licenses for the sale of tear gas to Bahrain and encourage the Bahraini security forces to cease its massive and indiscriminate use of this toxic chemical agent.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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