Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made the promotion of human rights a key element of his foreign policy, but these days Canadian leadership in this domain seems to have waned. The inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama provides new opportunities for Canada to play a more assertive role on human rights. Important steps might be taken with respect to Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Colombia, and international institutions.

On Guantanamo, President Obama has vowed to close the detention facility within a year. Guantanamo has become a symbol of injustice that is a boon to terrorist recruiters, so it is in everyone's interest that his plan proceed as quickly as possible.

But Obama needs help. Of some 240 detainees still held in Guantanamo, approximately 60 are designated for "release or transfer" but cannot be sent home for fear of torture or worse. Some will have to be admitted into the United States, but Obama is looking to share the political burden of resettling the rest.

Even the Bush administration no longer considered these particular detainees dangerous, but its one-time claim that all Guantanamo detainees are "the worst of the worst" makes governments nervous about accepting them.

Nonetheless, several European countries are now actively considering lending a hand. The Harper government should do the same. It should also, at long last, accept the return of Omar Khadr, the alleged child soldier who should never have been sent to Guantanamo in the first place and who today is the only western citizen whose government has not reclaimed him.

Regarding Afghanistan, the Canadian public is understandably reluctant to risk soldiers' lives in a conflict that seems to be faring poorly. Canada's 2,500 soldiers are due to be withdrawn by 2011. But for the Obama administration, Afghanistan is a major priority. Rather than abandon the new president, Canada should pledge an ongoing troop commitment, but as part of a rethinking of strategy.

Success in Afghanistan may require a beefed-up security presence, but if the priority of international forces remains self-protection, with small patrols regularly calling in "close air support," terrible incidents of civilian casualties will continue, eroding public support for the war effort and fuelling the insurgency. The Afghan government compounds the problem by refusing to tackle endemic official corruption or to bring to justice warlords who operate with impunity. Canada's assistance in reversing these misguided policies would help stabilize the country, steady the central government, and deprive al-Qaeda of an operational base that could threaten us all.

Concerning Colombia, the Harper government should halt a free-trade agreement until Bogota dismantles the paramilitary organizations that have been behind the murder of thousands of trade unionists and so many others, and brings to justice their many accomplices among politicians and the military. As a senator, Obama sided with those who believe that a regime of "free trade" should not be constructed on the graves of dead trade unionists. As president, he can be expected to continue that course. The Harper government would put itself at odds with the new American president if Canada were to implement its own free-trade agreement before Bogota had earned it.

More generally, Canada has long stood for the rule of law and multilateral efforts to protect rights. Today, the Harper government should encourage Washington to rejoin the community of nations and end the Bush administration's dangerous exceptionalism. The first such decision facing President Obama is whether the United States should run for membership on the UN Human Rights Council. The council is clearly a troubled institution but it is salvageable if the diplomatic work is done to convince moderate democratic governments, especially in Africa, to stop following the anti-human-rights leadership of the likes of Egypt and Algeria. Canada should promote U.S. participation as an important way to build a pro-human rights majority in the council.

Canada should also press the United States to "re-sign" the treaty for the International Criminal Court as a symbol of support after President George W. Bush's efforts to destroy the tribunal. And Canada should encourage the United States to adopt a series of important human rights treaties, from the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines and the new Oslo treaty on cluster munitions, to such foundational treaties as those protecting women's and children's rights. Canada can help Obama explain to isolationists in Washington that everyone suffers when the U.S. eschews full participation in the international legal regime to protect human rights.

Canada has traditionally punched above its weight in international affairs because it was seen as a moral voice expounding the importance of international law, international institutions, and respect for human rights. That is the platform on which President Obama ran as well, but it will not be easy to implement. By embracing these traditional policies, Canada can not only stand as a key ally of its southern neighbour; it can also secure its place once more as a beacon of enlightenment in a hostile and dangerous world.

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York. Mr. Roth will visit Ottawa today at the invitation of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University (carleton.ca/npsia), where he will deliver a public lecture titled The Struggle for Global Rights: A New North/South Divide? at 4 p.m. at Robertson Hall.