We Can Turn it Around


Rights begin at home. But only when the people lead the way.

statuePhoto by Adam J. Sporka

In 2001, four countries—Austria, France, Sweden, and the United States—vied for three seats on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). For the first time since the founding of the UNCHR in 1946, the United States was not elected to the Commission. How could such a thing happen?

President George W. Bush said what many Americans were thinking: “The decision was an outrageous decision. To me, it undermines the whole credibility of this commission—to kick the United States off, one of the great bastions of human rights, and allow Sudan to be on.” Congress promptly voted to withhold a final $244 million payment of U.N. back dues until the United States was restored to the Commission.

It was, after all, absurd. The United States is the global gold standard for protecting human rights within its borders and advancing them without. The United States protects freedom worldwide, and with it, human rights.
But what if it was the right decision?

Unremarked in the uproar was the fact that the election was not between Sudan and the United States. Utterly overlooked was the possibility that the election was a bit of a rebuke to the one country of the four that has refused to ratify treaties on the rights of women and children, and on economic rights.

The level of discourse around this supposedly purely political decision reinforces survey results from 1997: more than three-quarters of Americans had never heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

By the standards of that document, which defines the rights that belong to
all humans, how is the United States doing? We've grown comfortable with the received wisdom that we lead the world in human rights. Even if we have some problems, we're surely better than the many serious rights abusers in the world.

Is that the standard by which we want to judge ourselves? “As long as China is worse, we're still the leader.”

There are areas where the United States does very well: free expression, free exercise of religion, ownership of property, the right to political participation. These are what most Americans consider human rights. And the United States has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that makes those rights law.

But the UDHR includes a broader set of rights, enforced under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The United States has never ratified that treaty; 155 other countries have. Official U.S. policy is that such things as social security, work for a fair wage, a guaranteed adequate standard of living, and mandatory rest and leisure are fine aspirations, but not rights.

These are not rights made up elsewhere to embarass this country. The United States had a strong voice in crafting the UDHR. But the richest country in history has never recognized the right of all its people to be free from want. This cannot be the position of a world leader.

Now, the country is heading in the wrong direction, retreating even from the rights it has ratified. A long history of criticizing torture in other countries is diminished by the legalization of forms of interrogation widely considered torture. A proud tradition of offering asylum to the oppressed has given way to increasingly severe treatment of people at the border.

This is not the first time the United States has retreated from protecting human rights. The history of those times makes one thing clear: setting things right is the job of the people. The translation of rights from rhetoric to reality has always come from citizens demanding recognition of those rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the drafting of the UDHR said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home. … Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Looking at where the United States stands on human rights—all of them, as opposed to just the ones we prefer—is initially jarring, perhaps even painful. But so is living in the cognitive dissonance that proclaims our devotion to human rights even as we see them trampled around us. We cannot begin to close the gap between our cherished national story and reality until we take a look in the mirror.

In 2006, the UNCHR was reconstituted as the U.N. Human Rights Council. One change, demanded by the United States, was greater scrutiny of the human rights record of members of the Council. The United States is not a member of the new council. Facing the possibility that it might not get the required 96 votes, it chose not to seek election.

It is time for us to return to a human rights leadership role. The country that led the way to creation of the UDHR must embrace the rights defined in that document for all its people. That will happen, as has always been the case, only if the people demand recognition of the rights they own by birth.

Doug Pibel
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