Bolstering Domestic Human Rights

CAP event features a new blueprint recommending changes to help the new government monitor human rights in the United States.

 (Center for American Progress)
(Center for American Progress)

For more on this event, please visit the events page.

“Apple pie would be lucky to be as American as human rights,” said Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh at an event at the Center for American Progress yesterday. The event, co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress, the American Constitution Society, and Opportunity Agenda, discussed the barriers and opportunities to implementing international human rights standards inside the United States. Bill Schulz, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, moderated the panel for the event, which included Koh, Fordham Law School associate professor Catherine Powell, and Opportunity Agenda executive director Alan Jenkins.

Even though human rights define who we are as Americans, the U.S. government has failed to uplift these values at home. From Hurricane Katrina to torture, the male-female wage gap, racial and ethnic profiling, the shortage of affordable housing, and millions of Americans without health insurance, there is a clear need to improve human rights for Americans.

Domestic human rights, Powell argued, are an essential part of U.S. credibility in the world: They underwrite America’s moral voice and leadership. When human rights are not followed at home, countries with extensive human rights violations can point to the United States as hypocritical. The next president, Powell said, will have a significant opportunity to restore American leadership on human rights issues and must “mainstream” human rights by making rights language and ideas a part of every policy arena and federal agency.

Powell recently released her new document, Human Rights at Home: A Domestic Policy Blueprint for the New Administration, through the American Constitution Society. The blueprint recommends changes that will help the U.S. government implement and monitor human rights conditions in the United States.

Human Rights at Home recommends first that the next president reconstitute President Bill Clinton’s Interagency Working Group on Human Rights, which was effectively dismantled under the Bush administration. The working group would be responsible for responding to human rights complaints by international organizations, reviewing legislation passed by Congress for its conformity to human rights obligations, and conducting an annual review of human rights allegations against federal agencies.

Jenkins presented innovative new research on what Americans think about human rights. While only 8 percent of Americans can identify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by name, 82 percent believe that all people have basic rights and recognize that principle as key to American identity.

Jenkins’ research also indicates that leaders need to create a sense of urgency about human rights. Two-thirds of Americans believe government should expand programs that guarantee human rights. If these rights are identified with a variety of issues, talking about rights will resonate with the American people.

Polling data from The Opportunity Agenda shows that Americans place human rights in a hierarchy. Among “first tier” rights—rights supported by at least 80 percent of respondents—are racial equality, gender equality, fairness in criminal justice, freedom from discrimination, and equal access to public education. Among “second tier rights” (supported by at least 70 percent of respondents) are the right to health care, a clean environment, fair pay, and privacy.

A first step to implementing human rights is to “go back to the future,” said Koh. American policymakers need to reverse the erosion in human rights brought about by the so-called “war on terror.” He cautioned human rights advocates to avoid complacency, institutionalism, partisanship, and a preference toward incremental change.

Most importantly, Koh said, we need to act quickly. The next president should immediately begin rebuilding human rights at home, not only because of basic U.S. values, but also because doing so creates legitimacy for the promotion of human rights abroad. Human rights are a “magnetic” idea for the peoples of the world and draw support for American policies.

Powell’s blueprint addresses the need for a stronger moral voice on human rights by recognizing a domestic role alongside an international one. “By adopting these recommendations,” she writes, “the new administration will embrace our American roots as architects of the first rights revolution and strengthen the leadership position of the United States in the world as chief promoter of human rights.”

For more on this event, please visit the events page.

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