Human Rights USA welcomes the US Government’s report on its human rights record, submitted today to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The 29-page report, prepared for the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, provides extensive evidence of the US’s longstanding global leadership in human rights.
The self-reflection throughout the report, which documents genuine successes in advancing human rights, is to be applauded. At the same time, the report correctly identifies several areas where we, as a nation, still fall short of achieving our goals of equality, fairness, and dignity for all people.
However, the few concessions regarding the gaps between international human rights goals and US domestic policies do not go quite far enough. In sections addressing economic and social rights, for example, the report describes social services available for the most vulnerable among us – housing, health care, education, employment, food – as generosity desired by the public and thus duly enacted by elected officials. Such goodwill is an admirable American characteristic, to be sure, but it should not be confused with a rights-based framework.
As the famous saying goes, every right has a remedy. That is not the case when our government helps our fellow human beings meet their basic needs out of benevolence, rather than recognizing their right to live and work with dignity. A rights-based approach would ensure that these programs always exist, that they are designed to support everyone’s needs equally, and that they include the means for correcting inequities. The recent debate over extending unemployment benefits shows how the current system allows something as basic as one’s own home to become politicized. Can we really leave such fundamental human needs as food and shelter to political whims? President Roosevelt said one of the cornerstones of American security is Freedom from Want. The US should affirm that now by ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and protecting those rights in US law.
Remedies, enforcement, and accountability are important components of the international human rights system. Rather than turning those actions over to an international body, each nation is responsible for providing human rights protections within its own legal system. But the US still needs to take some important steps to fully implement the human rights values we share with the world. For example, the report cites the human rights treaties the US has ratified, but does not note that in most cases, the rights expressed in those treaties cannot be enforced by US courts without additional legislation. Thus many US citizens who have suffered harmful, discriminatory impacts of government-funded programs, for example, have no way to set things right if they cannot prove the government specifically intended that harm. Proof of intent is not needed under international human rights standards for discrimination; the focus is, and should be, on the damage done to the individual. Just to cite one example, residents of communities of color disproportionately impacted by preventable toxic pollution have taken their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after US courts denied them a remedy.
Along the same lines, paragraph 86 of the US report reads, “It takes vigilant action to prevent [torture] and to hold those who commit acts of official cruelty accountable for their wrongful acts.” Exactly where and when will those who committed and ordered torture be held accountable? The report does not answer that obvious question, nor does it resolve the ongoing concerns about trials by military commissions.
In issues like national security and immigration, where the federal government has primary responsibility, it also has the obligation to enact policies that protect human rights and provide accountability and redress for victims. But as a federal system, human rights implementation must also happen at the state and local levels. This fact becomes most obvious in the report's sections on criminal justice, particularly the description of the US death penalty. These gaps in implementation at the state and local level prevent the US from solving many human rights problems and putting our values of equality into practice. The report says little about how the federal or state governments intend to create an effective national human rights program.
In the report, the US Government says it wants to lead the world to a better future, and that it intends to provide friends and foes alike with a model of what that future looks like. To get there, the US urgently needs a national system that fully integrates our human rights obligations into federal legislation and policies and fosters involvement at the state and local levels. This system should include an implementation body such as an executive branch Interagency Working Group to serve as a focal point to ensure coordination of all federal departments and agencies. It would also need an independent, non-partisan monitoring body such as a US Commission on Civil and Human Rights, as well as effective coordination with state and local state officials, including civil and human rights agencies. (For more details about these recommendations, see the report on treaty ratification and implementation submitted to the UN earlier this year, which Human Rights USA helped write, and the Human Rights at Home Campaign, of which Human Rights USA is a member.)
“Human rights are universal, but their experience is local,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said, reiterating Eleanor Roosevelt. This truth is the reason for Human Rights USA’s work, including our continuing efforts to support the UPR process and make sure concerns like these reach the UN and the highest levels of the US Government. With appreciation for the progress this report represents and the accomplishments cited within it, significant work is still needed to make human rights real for everyone in the US.