April 01, 2015

Introduction: Human Rights Are Our Rights, Too

by Penny Wakefield

“Human rights” evokes many images of horrendous abuse of human beings around the world. The Holocaust, of course. Rwanda, Darfur, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria.

Or Guatemala, Colombia, Argentina; China, Myanmar, Iran. Indigenous people everywhere. And now, Syria.

But to the list many would add: the United States of America.

From World War II internment camps to jails and prisons and post-9/11 interrogation sites, from rural migrant and mine workers to urban sweatshop and restaurant workers and homeless veterans, even our recent history is replete with examples of cruelty and abuse, neglect, and degradation of human dignity of many within our own borders.

Today, human rights concerns are part of the daily news, often “graphic and disturbing” pictures on our home screens. But similarly disturbing images are coming out of our own towns and cities, from Newark, Los Angeles, and New Orleans to Detroit and Baltimore—and our heartland, too. The relative scope or degree of human rights abuses matters little to individuals who suffer them, and, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, does not define them.

The world system for addressing human rights abuses derives from the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and several treaties (also called “conventions”) subsequently approved to implement the Declaration’s ideals. Although the United States was a lead drafter of these documents, and even though many of the treaties’ principles and provisions reflect U.S. constitutional values and U.S. statutory concepts, our country lags behind most other UN member nations in accepting the treaties as an integral part of our law. In the 1990s, the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the Convention against Torture (CAT). It has yet to adopt other UN conventions addressing discrimination against women and girls, children, and persons with disabilities, as well as the convention on economic, social, and cultural rights.

All the human rights treaties are important not only because they express universal ideals but also because they hold our governments accountable for the collective well-being and quality of life that is rightfully part of every government’s promise to its citizens.

Some two decades ago, because of our government’s failure to ratify additional treaties, human rights lawyers began brainstorming other ways of achieving the goals and spirit of all the treaties in the United States. Out of the belief that the United States was missing huge opportunities to bring human rights principles to bear in protecting and improving the lives of its own citizens, a movement to “bring human rights home” was born.

In this issue, some of this country’s most prominent human rights advocates show us how, with innovative thinking and lawyering, incorporation of international human rights principles into U.S. law, policy, and practice can make a big difference in achieving civil rights, social justice, and international human rights goals. Indeed, it already has.

Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of Human Rights First, a premier international and U.S. human rights organization, sharply critiques the thesis of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law, by University of Chicago Law School Professor Eric Posner, which contends that international human rights treaties generally are ineffective in achieving human rights successes and that the United States should abandon the UN treaty model as irrelevant to U.S. goals here or abroad. To the contrary, Massimino says, treaties have helped change the world’s mindset about holding nations accountable for abuse of individuals, wherever they reside, and are an increasingly critical tool in U.S. diplomacy. Witness the growth in reach and stature of the international tribunals, she points out, and our government’s responses to heightened international criticism of U.S. treatment of prisoners, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to domestic solitary confinement.

Doug Cassel of Notre Dame Law School describes key provisions of the treaties that the United States has ratified and therefore has an international obligation to implement. He also points out major and wide-ranging concerns that UN human rights review committees and UN member nations are raising about the U. S. human rights record domestically, from access to voting, housing, and water to continuing questions about the government’s antiterrorism practices, including torture, in our post-9/11 environment.

Martha Davis, director of the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy at Northeastern University School of Law and co-author of the recent publication, Human Rights Advocacy in the United States, examines ways in which human rights treaties and norms are influencing policy, litigation, and legislation in the courts and at every level of U.S. government.

Tarah Demant, a senior director at Amnesty International USA, provides numerous examples of lawyers’ and other advocates’ use of international human rights principles in domestic advocacy. She discusses particularly the nationwide initiative “Cities for CEDAW” (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), formed last year to press for incorporation of CEDAW’s goals into state and local laws, policies, and programs.

Risa Kaufman, a clinical law professor at Columbia Law School, describes how, 15 years after its founding, the Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers’ Network and the hundreds of lawyers who are part of the network are propelling the movement.

Connie de la Vega, of the University of San Francisco, discusses potential and proven uses of international human rights standards to promote U.S. criminal justice reform.

Isabella Bunn, an international lawyer who teaches ethics and human rights courses here and in England, describes U.S. corporations’ efforts to integrate human rights goals and business practices, as well as a federal initiative to help guide and ensure compliance with these goals.

This issue’s Human Rights Hero is Gay McDougall, a preeminent international human rights lawyer and leader whose life work epitomizes the concept of bringing human rights home. As Duke Law School’s Jim Coleman writes, McDougall’s path from the segregation and civil rights battles of this country to the fight against apartheid in South Africa led to sharing a stage in victory with Nelson Mandela. But it also deepened her resolve to fight inequity here, as well as around the globe. She became one of the first to say, “We must bring human rights home.”

“Bringing human rights home” does not obviate the need for U.S. ratification of the UN human rights treaties. In fact, strong commitment to their purpose and values is more essential than ever for the United States to maintain its leadership role in international human rights matters. And the U.S. record, if perhaps better than most others’, is far from perfect. As the authors in this issue of Human Rights demonstrate, increased reliance on treaty principles can and does spur progress at home. After all, they say, human rights are our rights, too.

Penny Wakefield

Penny Wakefield is a legislative/public policy lawyer focusing on women’s rights and international human rights matters. She is co-chair of the ABA CRSJ Section’s International Human Rights Committee and on the ABA Human Rights Center Advisory Council and Human Rights magazine Editorial Board.