Renewing the Commitment to the Rule of Law and Human Rights in the United States

Article excerpt

The recent 100th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Johnson Bunche, serves as a timely reminder of the United States' proud history of leadership and commitment to international law and institutions, and of how much that kind of leadership is needed today.

There is an urgent need for the United States to reflect on its own historic role in the establishment of a global system of rules and institutions. The time has come to renew its commitment, in words and deeds, to the rule of law and to the international human rights standards and system that it did so much to establish. Equally important, there is a need to recognize how both connect to the goal of ensuring true human security. I make this call for a renewed commitment not as a critic but as a longtime friend and strong supporter of the United States.

We are confronted today with a dangerous array of threats to peace and security--from terrorists who are prepared to attack without regard for human lives, to failing and failed states unable to secure even the most basic structures of governance and at risk of becoming the breeding grounds for future terrorists. Other threats--from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, to international criminal syndicates that traffic in everything from small arms to the most vulnerable human beings--all require leadership and joint action. It is precisely these dangers that make respect for the rule of law and human rights so important today.

Standing up for those principles and the international systems that have been built to uphold them requires holding fast to long-standing national and international obligations. It also calls for thinking in new ways about security. A more expansive notion of human security could serve as a bridge, reconnecting the people of the United States with people from every part of the planet with greater awareness of our common future.

Some have argued that the terrible attacks of September 11, 2001, were so heinous that the only possible response was a global "war on terrorism." These voices point out that the enemy is not a nation-state and is not willing to respect the fundamental standards of international law. Fighting terrorism, therefore, requires new strategies and sometimes "exceptional measures."

More than three years after September 11, we must ask ourselves if such measures were justified or if they have brought results. (1) Were the decisions taken by the U.S. government to hold detainees at Guantanamo Bay without Geneva Convention hearings; to monitor, detain, and deport immigrants against whom no charges had been made; or to question long-held commitments (such as forbidding the use of torture) justifiable actions to protect the American people?

Some believe strongly that such actions were necessary to guard against further terrorist attacks. What is clear is that the language "at war with terrorism" has had direct, and nefarious, implications. It has brought a subtle--or not so subtle--change of emphasis: order and security trump all other concerns. As was often the case in the past during times of war, the emphasis on national order and security involved curtailment of democratic processes and resulted in violations of human rights. The bipartisan commission that has investigated the actions leading up to and following the events of September 11 has prompted an important debate about the effectiveness of these strategies and how best to protect the United States in the future. (2)

That debate should continue, and the International Commission of Jurists made a good start during its biennial conference in August 2004 in Berlin. One hundred sixty international lawyers from around the world adopted the Declaration on Upholding Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Combating Terrorism, (3) which acknowledges terrorism as a serious threat to human rights and affirms that all states are obliged to take effective measures. …