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Even Jimmy Carter's most avid supporters agree that much of what he has achieved since being defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 has outshone what he did while President.

On the other hand, in addition to laying out the usual criticisms about inept micro-management and the like, his most avid foes have always despised Jimmy Carter's calling human rights "the soul of our foreign policy." Both the "realists," a terrible name for the allegedly pragmatic U.S. Bismarckians, and the neo-conservative ideologues see human rights as an obstacle to wise foreign policy. It's just so messy. Not that they won't use "human rights" propagandistically for their own ends, decrying the behavior of whomever they seek to depose or make war upon or "liberate," but for them human rights gets in the way of getting done what they think needs to get done. Anybody who thinks differently is naive or unpatriotic.

Today in the Washington Post, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Nobel Peace prize-winning Carter has advised Barack Obama should reinject human rights into U.S. foreign policy. Excellent advice from this elder statesman. And just what many of us Americans and people throughout the world hope to see from the new administration.

With a new administration and a new vision coming to the White House, we have the opportunity to move boldly to restore the moral authority behind the worldwide human rights movement. But the first steps must be taken at home.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and end torture, which can be accomplished by executive orders to close the prison and by enforcing existing prohibitions against torture by any U.S. representative, including FBI and CIA agents. The detention of people secretly or indefinitely and without due process must cease, and their cases should be transferred to our courts, which have proved their competence in trying those accused of terrorism. Further, a nonpartisan expert commission should be named to conduct a thorough review of U.S. practices related to unwarranted arrest, torture, secret detention, extraordinary rendition, abandonment of habeas corpus and related matters. Acknowledging to the world that the United States also has made mistakes will give credence to our becoming "a more perfect union" -- a message that would resonate worldwide. Together, these actions will help us restore our nation's principles and embolden others abroad who want higher moral standards for their own societies.

By putting its house in order, the United States would reclaim its moral authority and wield not only the political capital but also the credibility needed to engage in frank but respectful bilateral dialogues on the protection of human rights as central to world peace and prosperity. Human rights defenders around the world, whose annual conference began at the Carter Center this week, are eagerly awaiting the Obama administration.

Carter is right that Obama has an unprecedented opportunity. But Obama should be careful to follow the advice, not the actions. Unfortunately, while Carter's record on human rights while he was in office was a vast improvement over his predecessors', it wasn't the unsullied bonanza some people have made it out to be.

While Carter cut off military aid to the brutal dictatorship of Guatemala, he kept the flow of arms going to El Salvador, where the government and government-backed death squads killed civilians on a large scale. He backed the Somoza regime in Nicaragua nearly to the end and pressured the Sandinistas to keep Somoza's murderous national guard intact. They said no. And when they did, contrary to popular myth, it wasn't Ronald Reagan's administration that initiated aid to the terrorist group that came to be known as the contras, but rather Carter's, which set up guardsmen in training camps in Honduras.

The Carter Administration was publicly committed to democracy in South Korea, had even threatened to remove its troops if the regime's human rights record didn't improve. But when pro-democracy protesters began an uprising in 1980, the two-faced Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Richard Holbrooke, gave military strongman Chun Doo Hwan the go-ahead to use force. South Korean soldiers technically under U.S. command subsequently slaughtered several hundred student protesters in Kwangju. Washington was at first silent after the killings, and then backed military strongmen who had ordered the attacks. Files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act years showed that a U.S. white paper on this massacre had falsely concluded that nobody in the administration was aware the military would be used against the students.

While speaking harshly of the Indonesian government's behavior in East Timor, which it had invaded in 1975, the Carter Administration provided additional military aid to the regime in Jakarta, which eventually killed 200,000 East Timorese.

Carter's service to his country, to the poor, and to the cause of human rights since departing the White House cannot be gainsaid. He has been rightly applauded for it.

But while Barack Obama and his team should take Carter's advice in using this "unprecedented opportunity" to place human rights front and center in a fresh U.S. foreign policy, they should exercise great care that their actions match their words.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Wed Dec 10, 2008 at 01:43 AM PST.

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