Renewal on human rights

60 years after U.N. adoption of rights declaration, America remains uncommitted to key principles

October 20, 2008|By Peter G. Danchin

The United States stubbornly refuses to ratify many key human rights treaties widely accepted by the international community. Does this kind of ideological resistance continue to make sense in today's world?

That will be one of the crucial questions considered at a forum in Baltimore this week marking the approach of the 60th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The launch of the "global war on terror" seven years ago spawned policies that have torn at the fabric of international and American law alike, and produced a new legal vocabulary that includes such ominous terms as "extraordinary rendition," "enhanced interrogation" and "indefinite detention." In this climate, renewing and reinforcing the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would seem more necessary than ever.

Since its adoption in the aftermath of World War II, the document has significantly influenced the law and politics of nearly all nations. Today, it stands as the foundation of the international law of human rights.

But the idea of human rights has always played a paradoxical role in American political life. While Eleanor Roosevelt displayed great leadership in drafting and promoting the declaration, Americans have generally viewed the international human rights movement as being for export only.

For example, the United States still refuses to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, half of the international bill of rights. Freedom from want, let us recall, was one of President Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms - encompassing the idea that true individual freedom cannot exist without adequate health care, education, food, housing and a living wage.

At least 30 million people in this country, many of them children, live in poverty, and as many as 50 million are without health insurance. The grinding poverty, endemic homelessness and inadequate access to health care we see in places such as Baltimore should not be viewed simply as economic or policy failures, but as severe violations of human rights. On this issue, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers both a critical mirror and an opportunity for policy reform, legal redress and international alliances. What the Human Rights Law Network does in Delhi, India, or what the Social and Economic Rights Action Center does in Lagos, Nigeria, does not differ fundamentally from what the Public Justice Center does here in Baltimore. What is different is the way in which nations recognize and respond to these claims.

Similar points can be made about a host of other questions. What does a commitment to full human equality entail? Is formal legal equality sufficient, or do we need to look deeper to issues of subordination and power disparities between groups in society? Do continuing and systemic racial inequality and social injustice in America suggest the limits of civil and political rights and the urgent need for a broader conception of human rights? Does equality in law include the outsider, whether noncitizen, illegal immigrant or unlawful combatant? If, for powerful reasons of self-preservation or national security, we are to treat outsiders differently from our citizens and deny them constitutional rights, what limits (if any) are there on our interference with the inviolability of persons?

As at the United Nations 60 years ago, these questions are again being taken up in earnest. This week at the University of Maryland School of Law, some of the world's leading human rights scholars and activists will gather. They will include Arthur Chaskalson, one-time defense lawyer to Nelson Mandela and first chief justice of South Africa's new Constitutional Court; Justice Bess Nkabinde-Mmono, the most recent appointment to that court; and Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, a former U.N. high commissioner for human rights and today a universally respected defender of human rights.

They will consider anew the universal principles of liberty, equality and dignity that animate the declaration's 30 articles, which all nations have committed themselves to and to which all societies aspire. While human rights today have a global prominence and importance few could have imagined 60 years ago, much critical work remains to be done in realizing these great principles.

Peter G. Danchin is assistant professor of law and chairman of the international law program at the University of Maryland School of Law. His e-mail is pdanchin@

law.maryland.edu.

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