Alan Jenkins is executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research, and advocacy organization with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America. He previously served as director of Human Rights at the Ford Foundation, and as assistant to the solicitor general at the U.S. Department of Justice.
What if the world’s governments came together and agreed on the fundamental rights that every human being must have in order to enjoy basic dignity, opportunity, and a meaningful life? What if their agreement was profoundly progressive, recognizing civil and political rights like free speech, due process, and non-discrimination, as well as economic and social rights like the right to health care and housing, to organize, and to receive a living wage for a hard day’s work? And what if they memorialized those rights in a seminal document, from which more specific commitments and enforcement could and did flow?
Most Americans would be surprised to learn that such a document exists. It’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it turns 58 years old this December 10—International Human Rights Day.
Although the United States played a leadership role in fashioning the Declaration and advocating its adoption, it also took steps to hamper its use here at home, bowing to Southern Democrats who feared it would overturn segregation. And in the years since, our government has failed to ratify, or outright opposed, key international agreements intended to fulfill the Declaration’s promise, even as it pushed other nations to take human rights seriously.
It’s time to change that. Events over the last six years—Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, racial profiling and warrantless wiretaps, exclusion of immigrants from basic services and due process, Hurricane Katrina, and 47 million Americans without health insurance—make clear that it’s time to bring human rights home.
What do international human rights bring to Americans that our own Constitution and current domestic laws do not? Plenty.
For example, the federal courts have largely rejected the notion that the Constitution protects economic rights. But the Universal Declaration provides that “everyone has the right to work” under “just and favorable conditions,” and that “everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”
The Declaration affirms that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” It guarantees that “everyone has the right to education.” And it insists that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
If that language sounds familiar, it’s because Eleanor Roosevelt and other members of the U.S. delegation to the Declaration process borrowed heavily from FDR’s vision of an “economic bill of rights” that led us out of the Great Depression and laid the foundation for unprecedented post-war prosperity.
Another area in which human rights add tremendous value is in ensuring equal opportunity and preventing discrimination. While a mountain of research shows that our criminal justice system is infected by racial bias and unfairness—with race influencing outcomes in policing, arrest, jury selection, prosecution, conviction, and punishment—our courts have declined to find a constitutional violation without proof that an identifiable person in the system intentionally sought to harm people of a particular race. Such a showing is almost impossible to make, and, in any event, misses the point.
By contrast, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the U.S. has signed and ratified, takes a more realistic and effective approach. It prohibits practices that have the effect of treating people differently based on their race—whether or not that discriminatory treatment is intentional. Well-documented racial bias in drug sentencing and the death penalty, for example, clearly fail that test.
These and other human rights agreements, when applied through the lens of our own Constitution, laws, and national values, can move us closer to the ideals of justice and opportunity that Americans hold dear.
How can we bring human rights home? The new Congress can make a difference immediately by ratifying outstanding human rights treaties without significant reservations. A good place to start is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which only the United States and the collapsed state of Somalia have failed to ratify. The U.S. has resisted ratifying the CRC because it outlaws the execution of children. Now that our own Supreme Court has held juvenile executions unconstitutional, our government should quickly ratify it.
Another important step would be to add to our existing civil rights laws a new generation of domestic human rights laws that apply our international commitments here at home. We don’t have to wait for Washington to begin making that happen. State and municipal governments can take the lead, as San Francisco did when it adopted an ordinance implementing the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. That action, which immediately led to more equitable city spending and a new, pragmatic focus on preventing violence against women, established an exciting example for other local governments.
Finally, we should all educate our fellow Americans about human rights as a proud part of our nation’s legacy and crucial to our nation’s future. After all, it was the founders of our country who declared it to be self-evident that we’re all created equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights. Human rights are profoundly American, even as they are global and universal. And bringing them home is crucial to making our country all that it was meant to be.
Opponents of human rights argue that reclaiming our role and responsibility within the international human rights framework would somehow threaten our national sovereignty. But in an era of globalization and interconnection, in which we routinely participate in international trade agreements, anti-terrorism compacts, and anti-nuclear efforts, it makes no sense to argue that participating in our half-century-old international human rights system is somehow a threat. To the contrary, reclaiming our leadership role on human rights will help to reestablish our credibility and influence around the world.
Once again, December 10 is International Human Rights Day. It's a good time to remind your elected officials, your community leaders, your family and friends, that it’s also American Human Rights Day, and that it’s time to make that mean something again.