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Human Rights Activists at Carter Conference Hopeful Obama Administration Will Restore U.S. Lead

This article, written by Walter Putnam, was distributed Dec. 2, 2008 by the Associated Press.

Human rights activists from around the world expressed hopes Tuesday that President-elect Obama will restore the American lead toward achieving their aims.

"The main challenge ahead involves worldwide U.S. participation," Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at an international conference at The Carter Center.

The two-day conference called "Restoring Rights: An Agenda for the New U.S. President" was aimed at focusing support for international political, economic, social and cultural rights in the next administration.

Former President Jimmy Carter told about 50 delegates that the U.S. image has been tarnished over the past seven years in the fight against terrorism.

"I believe the entire administration, in January, will be looking to restore the reputation of my country," said Carter, who made human rights a hallmark of four years in the White House and the past 26 through the Atlanta-based Carter Center.

The former president said Obama could change America's image in the first 10 minutes of his administration by promising not to allow torture, not to attack another country without a direct security threat, to tackle global warming and other environmental problems and institute a tax policy more favorable to the disadvantaged than the rich.

Pillay said although the quest for security against terrorism "has put human rights under strain," the two are not incompatible. She said numerous studies since 2001 have shown that "Crumbling social structures, or poverty or abuses of human rights -- or a combination of the three -- may provide a fertile ground for terrorists."

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, described dealing with the Bush administration as a "mountain of despair."

"Constituted of gross violations of the most basic human rights, it has cast a cold shadow over the whole world," Cox said. "We never expected to see the United States of America visibly engaged in and openly defending its own practice of torture, of secret detention, of indefinite detention without charges, or the creation and use of military tribunals that fall far below fair trial standards."

The delegates discussed the possibility of a congressionally approved bipartisan commission to investigate human rights violations, not necessarily to punish those responsible but to establish some accountability, learn how abuses occurred and prevent them in the future.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt, a professor at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, suggested such a commission should be international.

"America is too important to be left on its own," he said.

Carter cautioned against raising expectations too high. He said Obama will face a lot of political pressure against new initiatives, and the human rights groups "need to marshal forces in support of him.

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