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Making Human Rights Reality

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Katie Haas,
Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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December 10, 2012

Today is Human Rights Day and the 64th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As one of the first documents to present the world with a comprehensive vision of human rights, the declaration is fundamental to the work of social justice movements around the world, and to our work at the ACLU. It lays out universal standards for human dignity that all nations should uphold, and its almost unanimous adoption by the General Assembly in 1948 was a landmark moment for human rights defenders everywhere.

But despite the declaration’s significance, it is not a binding legal document. It describes what rights nations should guarantee, but imposes no legal obligations that governments must adhere to, and has no mechanisms for accountability. In order to invoke binding authority we must turn to other documents in the human rights system, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

This Human Rights Day, the ACLU and other organizations that promote human rights here at home are using the ICCPR to hold the United States accountable to its human rights promises – today we are submitting to the U.N. a list of human rights issues that it should focus on when looking at America’s performance on these promises.

The ICCPR is a binding treaty, and it requires governments that have ratified it to uphold certain rights. For the United States specifically, ratifying the treaty meant that it became “the supreme law of the land” under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives treaties the status of federal law. The rights contained in the ICCPR are called civil and political rights, and they roughly correspond to the first half of the Universal Declaration. Civil and political rights include things like the right to life; the right to vote; the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom of speech; and the right to be free from discrimination.

The United States was a leader in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but when it comes to binding treaties like the ICCPR, the U.S. has not displayed the same leadership. As the director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, Jamil Dakwar, explained today,

The U.S. undoubtedly continues to provide global leadership on some human rights issues. For example, the current administration has been actively engaging international bodies and was recently re-elected to the Human Rights Council, providing vigorous leadership in the fight for LGBT and gender equality as well as championing internet and religious freedom, free speech and assembly rights.

But while some U.S. laws and policies have been comparatively advanced in protecting civil rights and civil liberties, the U.S. has fallen behind in protecting other universal human rights recognized by the UDHR, especially in the areas of racial discrimination, criminal and economic justice. The U.S. government has only partially and selectively embraced these rights, ignoring international obligations and widening the gap between the United States’ sixty-four-year-old promise and its own current practice. Notably, the United States has fallen short of fully implementing its legal obligations under treaties ratified in the early 1990s.

One of those treaties was the ICCPR, which the U.S. ratified in 1992, decades after the treaty opened for signature in 1966. When the U.S. finally did ratify, it included reservations, understandings, and declarations – legal mechanisms by which a government can take exception to certain parts of a treaty while still ratifying the treaty as a whole. But even with these exceptions, by ratifying the treaty the United States submitted itself to an accountability process that the ACLU, along with other civil rights, human rights, and social justice groups that are part of the U.S. Human Rights Network’s ICCPR Task Force, are utilizing today.

The ICCPR’s accountability process involves a body of independent experts called the U.N. Human Rights Committee. This committee conducts a review of the United States’ adherence to the ICCPR every few years, and the next U.S. review is coming up. This means that organizations like the ACLU, which promote human rights domestically, have the opportunity to communicate with the committee, letting them know what violations of civil and political rights they should look out for. The U.S. government also gives the committee a report on the state of civil and political rights in the U.S., but sometimes this report lacks important information or gives information that doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground. Organizations like the ACLU can correct inaccurate information or fill in holes in the government’s report for the committee.

By ratifying the ICCPR, the U.S. promised that those responsible for acts of torture and abuse would be held accountable, and yet architects of the Bush administration torture and CIA rendition programs have not been held accountable. The U.S. promised that it would not use cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment as punishment, and yet it holds prisoners – even children – in prolonged solitary confinement, failing to respect their dignity as human beings. The U.S. promised not to discriminate, to uphold equality before the law, and to uphold the right to life, and yet it continues to apply the death penalty in an arbitrary and discriminatory way that results in the execution of innocent people. Today, the ACLU’s submission to the Human Rights Committee highlights all of these problems, as well as issues like anti-immigrant legislation, lack of accountability for killings on the U.S.-Mexico border, and violence against women.

As the introduction to the submission explained,

The Obama administration will have an opportunity in the first year of its second term to put muscle behind its rhetoric and make significant steps towards fulfilling human rights commitments made under the ICCPR.

By ratifying this treaty, the United States made the right promises. This Human Rights Day, as every day, the ACLU is working to hold the United States accountable to its international human rights commitments, and to help make those promises reality.

For more information about the ICCPR and the Human Rights Committee, see our FAQ.

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