Next week is Yom Kippur (Sundown, October 11 to Sundown, October 12), the Day of Atonement on the Jewish calendar. As tradition has it, atoning on Yom Kippur will address only sins against God. For transgressions against other individuals, Jews are obligated to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those people first. Yom Kippur also marks the end of the High Holidays, and thus offers the prospects of a fresh start and an opportunity to do better than we did the year before.
While I’m well aware that President Obama is not Jewish (or Muslim—are people still really talking about that?), I’d like to invite him to participate, at least in spirit. And I think the timing is appropriate, because Yom Kippur falls approximately 100 days from the end of the Obama Presidency—leaving one final window of opportunity for the president while still in the Oval Office.
On his inauguration in 2009, newly-elected President Obama boldly proclaimed that “[a]s for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Human rights advocates hailed his election and speech as the dawn of a new, promising era of progress on human rights. The past eight years haven’t necessarily lived up to expectations.
So, with little more than 100 days left in the Obama Presidency, I have two hopes. First is that he is reflecting on shortcomings (e.g., no human rights treaty was ratified while he was in office; even President George W. Bush managed to achieve ratification of two human rights treaties). Second is that he will use these final 100 days to do better. Yes, I know he faces significant opposition in the Senate (the Senate’s failure to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was deeply disappointing). But at the risk of sounding naïve, if you aren’t willing to try to advance the ball on human rights when holding arguably the most powerful position in the world, when is the right time?
The “To Do List” for human rights is lengthy. But here are three options for President Obama that can be done within 100 days:
- End the federal government practice of confining migrant children in detention centers. No six-year-old who has fled violence in search of safety should be “welcomed” by being incarcerated. A recent essay by Wendy Cervantes at First Focus sheds light on this practice.
- Ban child labor in tobacco production. The adverse health consequences of tobacco use are well known. Less well-known is the harm inflicted on those who work in tobacco fields, particularly children. In August 2016, 110 organizations called on President Obama to protect children from “acute nicotine poisoning and other health and safety hazards faced by children working in US tobacco fields.” (click here for the letter to President Obama from the Child Labor Coalition and other organizations).
- Send the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) to the Senate. The U.S. is now the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC. This is the closest any human rights treaty has come to universal acceptance. Since the U.S. signed the treaty in 1995, no President has taken further action. No one can prevent President Obama from forwarding the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent. Are there sufficient votes in the Senate now for ratification? Probably not. Might some Senators object? Probably. But it’s President Obama’s decision, and sending the treaty to the Senate would be a step forward.
These three opportunities all have two important things in common: First, President Obama has the power to act on all of these. Second, all three steps would help move the United States in direction of ensuring the rights and well-being of children. It’s time for action.
First published on the Human Rights at Home blog on October 7, 2016.
Also published on First Focus, a national nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions.