In a few short days, millions of spectators will fill the stands of the Olympic stadium in Beijing to witness the best display of athleticism that our international community has to offer. The inspiration to be garnered in the athletic setting is guaranteed, but can the games inspire us politically as well?
Earlier this month, President Bush decided that he would attend the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic games, despite strong criticism from John McCain, Barack Obama, and human rights advocates. The President has felt pressure to boycott the Olympics in protest of the brutal oppression of Tibetans by China; the country’s support of the government of Sudan- it being Sudan’s biggest trading partner; the censorship it imposes within the country; its efforts to block access to foreign journalists and diplomats; the eviction of residents to make room for Olympic stadiums; and the threat of violence against dissidents.
Both presidential hopefuls have stated that unlike Bush, they would have not attended the 2008 Olympic games. Barack Obama has reaffirmed that "in the absence of some sense of progress, in the absence of some sense from the Dalai Lama that there was progress, I would not have gone". McCain has also professed that "if Chinese policies and practices do not change, I would not attend the opening ceremonies. It does no service to the Chinese government, and certainly no service to the people of China, for the United States and other democracies to pretend that the suppression of rights in China does not concern us. It does, will and must concern us". We couldn’t agree more. But, at the same time, we think that at a time of extraordinary rendition, the suspension of habeas corpus, open torture, abandoned survivors of disaster (many still displaced), growing hunger and homelessness, a sixth of the population without access to health care, and extreme inequality of wealth, democracies across the world have equal reason to be concerned with the state of human rights in the United States. And the presidential candidates have an even greater reason to be concerned, particularly since many of the violations have gone on under their watch while they were sitting United States Senators. Yet, both McCain and Obama have failed to take a stand on human rights at home.
If the United States is to regain credibility on the world stage, we must lead by example, and not through empty rhetoric or symbolic gestures. By failing to attack human rights abuses directly and forcefully within the United States, both candidates make the untenable claim that the international community must meet higher standards than the U.S. government. This attempt to apply a double standard is corrosive to both human rights at home and around the world. As both candidates have reminded us, this is the time for change. Protecting the full range of human rights, including economic and social rights, is essential to human dignity and the ability of communities to participate in a healthy democracy. That would be the change we can believe in. When world leaders come together in Beijing, we’d like to see a message of mutual accountability to human rights – here and around the world.