‘Whither America: Law & Human Rights in the next US Administration?’

On Thursday 6th November, Professor Samantha Power and Professor Cass Sunstein, newly appointed adjunct Professors in the Faculty of Law, delivered their (joint) inaugural lecture. Both Professors have acted as advisors to the President elect and are distinguished public commentators as well as highly respected academics. The title: ‘Whither America: Law & Human Rights in the next US Administration?’ provided the audience not only an insight into the role of the rule of law and human rights in the forthcoming US Administration but also reflections on Barak Obama and the road to his historic win in the Presidential election this week.

Professor Sunstein opened the lecture with some personal reflections of Obama the man; his thoughtfulness, stillness and his intellect. This set the scene for his examination of Obama as a “visionary minimalist”. The minimalist element is Obama’s rejection of “standard social divisions” – liberals/conservatives, Democrats/Republicans. The need to respect competing views and forge policies that will attract support from all sides is a central element of Obama’s approach. At the same time, Professor Sunstein characterised him as a visionary because he is “willing to think big” with ambitious energy plans and reform of key public services. The result will be a President in a different mould than that which has been witnessed in recent years.

Professor Power considered America’s role internationally as well as nationally, noting the difficulty America found itself in during the Bush years – at odds often with the rest of the world. President Elect Obama wanted America to once more take a role on the international stage that would be about cooperation and would encompass not only human rights but also issues of fundamental importance to the future such as global warming and international peace and security.

The reinvigoration of the role of American on the International stage was picked up by Professor Sunstein in the questions and answers session in particular in relation to the role of the US as a beacon of human rights. He advised the audience to “expect leadership on fundamental rights – not only in relation to traditional rights but also the framing of new rights” such as sexual orientation and the strengthening of disability rights both of which President Elect Obama referred to in his acceptance speech.

Neither Professor Power not Professor Sunstein were speaking directly for President Elect Obama in their lecture, but they were able to point to the themes that came from the presidential campaign which showed the scope for real change for America in the new presidential era. The appointment of new judges to the Supreme Court, the protection of human rights, the closing of Guantanamo Bay and an end to rendition flights, an emphasis on heathcare and education and the strengthening of the rule of law were all key themes. Obama, we were reminded was a constitutional lawyer who had once taught human rights. His commitment to the principles of human rights was not just about rhetoric, it was about realising genuine change after eight years in which America had acted to undermine its respect for law and rights.

One issue that was raised but left unanswered was what happens now with the sense of civic responsibility and democracy that had been energised by the grass roots movement mobilised so effectively by Obama. How can the new energy and activism be harnessed for real social change at the grassroots level?

The sense of history being made was however very clear to the audience, as was the sense of excitement for a new phase in America’s history, the idea a renewal of America, both domestically and internationally. The lecture encapsulated that mood, felt far beyond the shores of the USA.

A podcast of the lecture will be available on the UCC website soon.