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Respecting Human Rights...At Home

Frank Knaack,
Executive Director, ACLU of South Carolina
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June 18, 2008

Sixty years ago today the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, adopted the draft of what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR has since become the foundation of the modern human rights system, or in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt “the international Magna Carta.”

The UDHR sprang from the death and destruction of World War II and the Holocaust. It sought to create a new system of rights protection; a system whereby certain rights could not be violated, regardless of where they occurred. In addition to the duty of states to refrain from violating the rights of individuals within their territory, this new system also placed positive obligations on states to provide all persons within their jurisdiction with certain basic rights, without distinction as to race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.

The UDHR laid the foundation for a system of rights which are universal, indivisible, and interdependent. The UDHR does not differentiate between civil and political rights on one side and economic, social, and cultural rights on the other. It realizes that in order to properly enjoy one set of rights, you must also be able to enjoy the other. As is often noted, one cannot properly exercise their right to vote, think, or live if they have no food, housing, or basic health services. It is from these principles that the modern human rights treaty system (international human rights law) was born.

Although the notion of universal rights to be enjoyed by all persons was a great step forward, the decisions of the U.S. government during the past 60 years have greatly hindered the ability of people to enjoy these rights, both abroad and at home. Beginning with the debate during and immediately following World War II over the creation of the international human rights system, the U.S. pushed for and ultimately succeeded in creating a non-binding declaration, instead of a binding covenant. This decision was taken to pacify the segregationists in the U.S. Congress. A further impediment to the realization of the UDHR is the view, by the U.S. government, that the UDHR and international human rights law are unnecessary at home, and are thus rightly used only as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.

Beyond the historical impediments noted above, the U.S. government’s current policies, from its failure to adequately abide by its human rights treaty obligations, to its failure to ratify the majority of the U.N. human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, just to name a few, continue to negatively impact the enjoyment of these basic rights and protections as well as U.S. standing in the world.

While much of the focus on the human rights record of the U.S. government is in the context of foreign policy and the so called “war on terror,” including the rendition, torture, and indefinite detention of foreign nationals, and vis-à-vis its high rhetoric on spreading freedom and democracy throughout the globe, it is of equal importance to look at the state of human rights at home. From the government’s inadequate response in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita; to pervasive discrimination against racial minorities in the areas of education, housing, and criminal justice, including death penalty; to imposing life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles; to abhorrent conditions in immigration detention facilities, it is clear that the U.S. government has failed to abide by its international obligations.

While the struggle for universal human rights is far from over, there has been great improvement in the fight to bring human rights home. More and more non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individual activists in the U.S. are utilizing the human rights framework in the domestic advocacy and litigation. At the latest session of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (the treaty body that monitors state compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination), there were more than 120 representatives from U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Geneva, Switzerland, who briefed the Committee members and provided additional information to counter the misrepresentations and omissions of the official U.S. government report on the state of racial discrimination in the U.S. This information, in turn, led the Committee to conclude that the U.S. should make sweeping reforms to policies affecting racial and ethnic minorities, women, indigenous people, and immigrants. The Committee’s recommendations garnered domestic and international media attention, and were followed by a three week official visit to the U.S. by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism. This visit by the Special Rapporteur further opened up opportunities for domestic NGOs to utilize the international human rights framework, as was evidenced by the successful public education and media outreach campaigns conducted by local NGOs throughout the US during this visit. As this shows, human rights advocacy has become an effective tool for social justice advocates in the U.S. to use to press for change and enhance the protection of basic human rights.

To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the UDHR, the ACLU will be engaging in an advocacy campaign to raise awareness of U.S. obligations and shortcomings under international human rights law. This campaign will culminate with day of action events throughout the country on December 10, 2008, the day when the UDHR was adopted by the Member States of the United Nations General Assembly. As part of this campaign, the ACLU Human Rights Program put together a short video on the UDHR. The video highlights the importance of the UDHR to both the international human rights system, as well as to the work of the ACLU at the local, state, and federal levels and features ACLU lawyers and advocates as well as internationally renowned human rights leaders. Please visit the homepage of the ACLU UDHR 60th Anniversary advocacy campaign,, to view the UDHR Anniversary video, find additional information on the UDHR, and find out how you can become a part of our campaign to raise awareness of the UDHR and the international human rights system. We hope that you will join us in this effort!

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