It largely didn't, making a series of fairly vague and weak commitments to uphold U.N. human rights treaties. But looking at the domestic human rights section on page two ("Commitment to Advancing Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in the United States"), I can spot two areas in which the Obama administration has parted ways with past administrations (including both the Bush and Clinton administrations):
1. The United States executive branch is committed to working with its legislative branch to consider the possible ratification of human rights treaties, including but not limited to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and ILO Convention 111 Concerning Discrimination in the Respect of Employment and Occupation.The United States is one of only eight countries not to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the other seven being three small Pacific islands and theocratic states of Iran, Qatar, Somalia, and the Sudan. In this respect the United States has taken a position on women's human rights that falls somewhere to the right of Saudi Arabia, which ratified the treaty in 2000 (though it is worth noting that Saudi Arabia clearly has not taken its CEDAW treaty obligations very seriously). The treaty was first adopted in 1981, so this is a bipartisan, multi-administration problem--President Reagan was the first to fail to bring the United States on board, but the Clinton administration failed to remedy this problem, even when it had a Democratic majority in the Senate.
Excuses for not ratifying the treaty vary, but most have to do with Article 12, section 1:
Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning.The interpretation of "family planning" varies, but some critics of CEDAW are concerned that the treaty could be interpreted as defining access to birth control and abortion as human rights.
But in practice, the reason CEDAW has never been adopted most likely has more to do with the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the subsequent backlash against it. Because the CEDAW asserts the same rights as the ERA, but in greater detail, the same leaders tend to oppose both initiatives--and the same supporters of both initiatives tend to be lukewarm about it.
The failure of the United States to ratify the U.N. International Labor Organization's Convention 111, which has been on the table since 1958, is far more mysterious given the fact that it overlaps with existing federal legislation (most notably the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
The possibility that the Obama administration might seek ratification of both treaties is promising, and could indicate a historic level of commitment to international women's rights law. The degree to which this commitment might be attributable to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose 1995 speech at the 4th U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing indirectly but eloquently called for the ratification of both CEDAW and Convention 111, is open to conjecture--but if she's prepared to be an advocate for international women's rights, she's heading up the right department.