“Despite the leading role the United States has played in the development of international human rights law and standards…the United States has historically been reluctant to ratify international human rights treaties or to allow international standards to be applied to its own performance,” said Bill Schulz, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who moderated a panel on domestic human rights and national security Wednesday at CAP.
The three-member panel focused on how applying international human rights standards to domestic practices can enhance U.S. national security goals. The panelists were Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; Laura Murphy, a strategist for the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda; and Shira Saperstein, also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Schulz attributed U.S. resistance to international human rights treaties to two factors: its “self-image as a nation set apart from the rest of the world,” and “the notion that ‘human rights’ violations occur to people in other countries and that, while the United States may have once had a ‘civil rights’ problem, it certainly has no ‘human rights’ problems of any consequence.”
This resistance has had serious domestic consequences according the panelists. Saperstein, who specializes in reproductive rights, explained that “sexual and reproductive rights are integral to human rights, but the United States has never treated them as such.” She said that no specific international treaty comprehensively covers reproductive rights and they are instead “rooted in an array of other instruments,” which form a “constellation of human rights.” But the United States’ failure to ratify the treaties that support those instruments has led to poor reproductive health at home. She pointed to its unacceptably high infant and maternal mortality rates, which rank 29th and 41st in the world, respectively.
Henderson described public education as the “most profound” of all U.S. domestic failures to meet basic human rights. He said the disparities within cities such as Baltimore are “stark” and “cannot be rationalized or justified.” Such discrepancies, said Henderson, stem from the United States’ failure to recognize education as a fundamental constitutional right despite international treaties’ efforts to establish it as a basic human right.
But it will be more difficult for the United States to isolate itself from international standards as globalization continues and the world becomes smaller, explained Schulz. “As Americans grow more aware of their interdependence with the rest of the world and begin to see the world as others see it, and as they begin to understand that how we treat our neighbors at home has a direct impact on how we are perceived abroad…appreciation for the full range of human rights will grow,” he said.
Murphy has already seen evidence in America of this wider appreciation of human rights. “It is not just activists and scholars who want domestic human rights,” she said, indicating that popular support is building in the United States.
All of the panelists were critical of the ideological lens the Bush administration used to view human rights, and Henderson thought that the current administration “is committed to a more transparent process.” The combined effects of globalization and the new administration may make the spread of domestic human rights possible, but the panelists agreed that change won’t come on its own.
And while the Obama administration might be an improvement on human rights over the previous administration, it doesn’t have a perfect record, according the Murphy. “We have seen so many positive steps from this administration, but we have also seen setbacks,” which she said included the United States’ failure to participate in the World Conference against Racism held earlier this year. Henderson added, “We should not assume that the [Obama] administration is going to do the right thing. They must be pushed.”
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