Renewing the Commitment to the Rule of Law and Human Rights in the United States
Robinson, Mary, Global Governance
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. However, the declaration also sets boundaries:
In adopting measures aimed at suppressing acts of terrorism, states must adhere strictly to the rule of law, including the core principles of criminal and international law and the specific standards and obligations of international human rights law, refugee law and, where applicable, humanitarian law. These principles, standards and obligations define the boundaries of permissible and legitimate state action against terrorism. The odious nature of terrorist acts cannot serve as a basis or pretext for states to disregard their international obligations, in particular in the protection of fundamental human rights. A pervasive security-oriented discourse promotes the sacrifice of fundamental rights and freedoms in the name of eradicating terrorism. There is no conflict between the duty of states to protect the rights of persons threatened by terrorism and their responsibility to ensure that protecting security does not undermine other rights. On the contrary, safeguarding persons from terrorist acts and respecting human rights both form part of a seamless web of protection incumbent upon the state. Both contemporary human rights and humanitarian law allow states a reasonably wide margin of flexibility to combat terrorism without contravening human rights and humanitarian legal obligations.
In brief, this declaration restores the balance lost after September 11 and should hang in law offices and judges' chambers throughout the world. It is a charter to counter the "new normal." (4)
What are the consequences of U.S. actions abroad? By responding in the way it did to the attacks of September 11, including through the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has, often inadvertently, given other governments an opening to employ measures that run against international human rights standards and undermine efforts to strengthen democratic forms of government.
I observed this eventuality firsthand during my final year as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Repressive new laws and detention practices were introduced in a significant number of countries, all broadly justified by U.S. actions and the new international war on terrorism. The extension of security policies in such countries has been used to suppress political dissent and to stifle the expression of opinion by individuals who have no link to terrorism and are not associated with political violence. I will never forget the bluntness of one ambassador in 2002 who said, "Don't you see High Commissioner? The standards have changed."
During the past three and a half years, the view that governments will ultimately rule only by power and in their own interest, rather than by law and in accordance with international standards, has been strengthened significantly. We must continue to challenge this approach and to do everything possible to maintain the integrity of international human rights and humanitarian law in the light of heightened security tensions--not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the most effective strategy to counter the forces that fuel terrorism. The United States can make a vital contribution to that effort by living up to its time-honored commitments to justice and respect for what Kofi Annan called in the General Assembly "the rule of law, at home and in the world." (5)
What is needed now is a major course correction that begins with a broader understanding of what defines human and global security. Governments must craft policies that manage and balance increasing interdependence with increased vulnerability. Both the North and the South must expand their thinking and policies beyond the narrow notion of state security.
Again, in winning the war of ideas we should look to the best traditions of U.S. leadership for guidance and inspiration. President Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union address argued that security "means not only physical security which provides safety from attacks by aggressors," but also "economic security, social security, moral security." He stressed, "Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want." (6)
Whereas in the United States and Europe the focus since September 11 has been on state security and combating acts of terrorism, millions of other people on the planet have continued to be at daily risk from violence, disease, and abject poverty. Their insecurity stems from where the next meal will come from, how to acquire medicines for a dying child, how to avoid an armed criminal, how to manage the household as a ten-year-old AIDS orphan--theirs is the comprehensive insecurity of the powerless.
For women, gender is itself a risk factor: the secret violence of household abuse, the private oppressions of lack of property or inheritance rights, the lifelong deprivations that accompany lack of education, and the structural problem of political exclusion. Freedom from want is an empty promise today for more than 800 million people who suffer from undernourishment, for the 30,000 children around the world who die each day of preventable diseases, for the billion people still without access to clean water supplies, or the 2.4 billion who lack access to basic sanitation. (7)
Two distinct groups populate this dismal picture: countries that have benefited from more open markets, free movement of capital, and new technologies; and those that have been left behind. The reasons for this situation are many. For example, more and more people are conscious of the intolerable burden of debt on the poorest countries--a debt often incurred by former dictators over long periods that never benefited the population. What is less appreciated is that poor countries are currently financing the huge deficit here in the United States. The World Bank report Global Development Finance: Harnessing Cyclical Gains for Development puts it this way: "Since 2000, the developing world has been a net exporter of capital to the advanced economies." (8) Not only is more debt relief for the poorest countries essential, but rich countries such as the United States should no longer borrow cheaply from poorer ones who need those resources for development at home.
Statistics give us the antiseptic numbers but fail to convey the humiliation, hopelessness, and lack of dignity behind these data. It is these exigencies about which those living in poverty speak: the lack of self-respect, the indignity and humiliation of a refugee camp, the invisibility of being homeless, the helplessness in the face of violence--including violence perpetrated by those in uniform who are supposed to protect.
What I began to appreciate as president of Ireland--on visits, for example, to Somalia in 1992 and to Rwanda in 1994--became even clearer during my years at the UN. The underlying causes of practically all human insecurity are an absence of the capacity to influence change at a personal or community level, exclusion from voting or participating in local and national decisionmaking, and economic or social marginalization. The key to change lies in empowering people to secure their own lives. For this, people need the means to hold their governments accountable, at both local and national levels.
An independent commission, cochaired by Amartya Sen and Sadako Ogata, examined this broader understanding of human security. Their report, Human Security Now, proposes a new model that shifts the focus from the security of the state to the security of people.
The report identifies two underlying concepts: protection and empowerment. The first of these is primarily a state responsibility, but when states are unable or unwilling to address large-scale abuses, an international responsibility to take appropriate action kicks in. This topic was examined and clarified earlier by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in The Responsibility to Protect. (9) The Commission on Human Security describes the second concept, empowerment, as "people's ability to act on their own behalf--and on behalf of others.... People empowered can demand respect for their dignity when it is violated ... and they can mobilize for the security of others." (10)
I witnessed the power of this idea during my travels as high commissioner. Human rights groups, women's groups, environmental movements, child advocates, minority groups, and those tackling poverty were all increasingly seeing the value of using international human rights commitments to hold their governments accountable for shortcomings in local standards of health, education, and adequate housing and to challenge expenditures on unnecessary military equipment or projects benefiting only a small elite.
Now these groups have access to additional tools in the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). (11) An opportunity presents itself to reinforce accountability and the empowerment of grassroots organizations in every region by linking their country's undertaking to achieve the MDGs by 2015 and legal commitments to progressively implement economic and social rights under relevant international treaties. These endeavors complement the commitment of developed countries to provide substantial new resources for development.
To date, large parts of civil society have neither promoted the MDGs nor pressured their governments to take effective action. Some human rights groups have expressed concern that the goals sideline more pressing issues or ignore previous commitments, such as the women's rights platform of the 1990s. Another criticism is that the MDG process is top-down because civil society was not involved in formulating the MDGs, which are seen by some as an attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all approach to development.
Although I recognize that these are legitimate concerns, we should not forget that the MDGs were placed within the context of commitments that governments reaffirmed at the September 2000 UN Millennium Summit. Because human rights, democracy, and good governance are vital to achieving development goals, they should be given greater prominence and should include the following commitments:
* To respect and fully uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
* To strengthen the capacity of all countries to implement the practices of democracy and human rights;
* To implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW);
* To ensure respect and protection for the rights of migrant workers and their families;
* To work collectively for a more inclusive political process; and
* To ensure the freedom of the media and public access to information.
Making more of the links between human rights, human development, and human security could also have a positive impact on the allocation of resources. Additional money to support the MDGs, for example, was pledged by Washington and the European Union at the 2002 International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico. However, there is still a wide disparity between annual Western official development assistance (ODA) (U.S. $60 billion) and the yearly amount spent by the West on such items as agricultural subsidies ($300 billion) and military expenditures ($900 billion).
An eminent panel of economists chaired by Mexico's former president, Ernesto Zedillo, estimated that an additional annual $50-60 billion of ODA would be needed to ensure the realization of the MDGs by 2015. If this expenditure would in fact make the world more secure, does it not seem like a good investment?
I now lead Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, which seeks to extend a human rights analysis and strong gender perspective into issues of trade and development; into health issues, particularly the pandemic of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; and into migration. In seeking to be a catalyst in helping create multistakeholder approaches to addressing global problems and to helping grassroots and social movement groups to empower themselves, we need to engage more directly with an emerging U.S. human rights movement, which is seeking to reclaim the full U.S. legacy of international human rights.
I see this movement taking shape in many places. For instance, a growing number of U.S. medical professionals and groups such as Physicians for Human Rights are pushing for greater recognition of the right to the highest attainable standard of health for all and are demonstrating the impact that such a shift would have on the way decisions are made about health spending and access to health services, especially for the most vulnerable. U.S. development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations are increasingly aware of the human rights instruments ratified in the countries where they are working. They are increasingly familiar with reports submitted by governments on their rights performance and the comments by treaty-monitoring committees and UN experts. By linking this information to their own work, they seek to empower civil society groups to push for results. Interest is growing in issues such as fair trade and socially responsible investing. Consumer power can help shape corporate social responsibility.
Many challenges face this emergent U.S. human rights movement. The government's ongoing aversion to international law and institutions and the lack of awareness about international standards among the general public must be addressed. Sadly, many Americans are aware of neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nor the role their country played in creating the international human rights movement. But growing numbers are seeking to reclaim American traditions of engagement with international institutions and law as the best hope for a more peaceful and just world.
We live in difficult but hopeful times. The challenge of speaking out against the erosion of civil liberties, even during times of crisis, remains a priority for the foreseeable future. Calling on all governments to hold fast to their international legal obligations and to reaffirm their commitment to multilateralism will require concerted efforts. But a movement seeking a fairer world in which all people are guaranteed basic human security is growing. The citizens of the United States as well as the Bush administration should join their voices to that chorus.
Mary Robinson directs Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and is the former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This article is based on the Dankwart A. Rustow Memorial Lecture she presented at The CUNY Graduate Center, 21 September 2004.
1. See Thomas G. Weiss, Margaret E. Crahan, and John Goering, eds., Wars on Terrorism and Iraq: Human Rights, Unilateralism, and U.S. Foreign Policy (London: Routledge, 2004).
2. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2004).
3. Available online at www.icj.org.
4. Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Assessing the New Normal: Liberty and Security for the Post-September 11 United States, available online at www.humanrightsfirst.org/pubs/descriptions/Assessing/AssessingtheNew Normal.pdf.
5. Kofi Annan, "Rule of Law at Risk Around the World," address of 21 September 2004, press release SG/SM/9491, GA/10258.
6. President Franklin Roosevelt, 1944 State of the Union address, available online at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp? document=463.
7. UNDP, Human Development Report 2004 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); see tables, pp. 139-250.
8. Available online at www.worldbank.org/prospects/gdf2004.
9. International Commission on Intervention and State Security (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: ICISS, 2001); see also the accompanying research volume by Thomas G. Weiss and Don Hubert, The Responsibility to Protect: Research, Bibliography, and Background (Ottawa: ICISS, 2001).
10. Commission on Human Security, Human Security Now (New York: Commission on Human Security, 2003), p. 11.
11. Available online at www.un.org/millenniumgoals. See also Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, "Millennium Development Goals: Why They Matter," Global Governance 10, no. 4 (winter 2004).…
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Publication information: Article title: Renewing the Commitment to the Rule of Law and Human Rights in the United States. Contributors: Robinson, Mary - Author. Journal title: Global Governance. Volume: 11. Issue: 1 Publication date: January-March 2005. Page number: 1+. © 2009 Lynne Rienner Publishers. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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