Little Humility, Please: Human Rights and Social Policy in the United States

By Wronka, Joseph | Harvard International Review, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Little Humility, Please: Human Rights and Social Policy in the United States


Wronka, Joseph, Harvard International Review


JOSEPH WRONKA is Associate Professor of Social Work at Springfield College and Research Associate at the Heller School of Brandeis University's Center for Social Change.

The 1998 US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices do not review the status of human rights in the United States, officially because Congress does not "appropriate funds to monitor its own country." Certainly these annual reports, written in part to shape policy, are helpful, if only because they alert the world to human rights atrocities committed in foreign countries. But what about human rights abuses in the United States? The United States is a powerful moral leader when it comes to monitoring international human rights, but its failure to monitor itself seriously compromises its credibility.

The Leadership Role of the US

To be sure, the United States has played a leadership role in the development of international norms of human rights. For example, largely upon the initiative of the United States, members of the international community met at the Conference of Evian in 1938 to stop the abuses of the Third Reich. Although that conference failed, it was an American, Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a few years later. This landmark manifesto was ratified by the United States and the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, with no dissent. Today, that document is increasingly referred to as "customary international law," by which all countries must abide. More recently, the United States played a pivotal role in the International Human Rights Vienna Conference in 1993 by urging the establishment of a High Commissioner of Human Rights, a position presently held by the able Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland.

The United States' pride in its historical leadership role ought to be tempered with humility, however. While it continually admonishes nations that fail to follow the basic guidelines of human dignity and justice accepted throughout the international community, it prevents the international community from criticizing its own human rights practices. Furthermore, the United States has failed to practice what it preaches by refusing to ratify various important human rights initiatives, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ROC, 1989), the Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR, 1966), and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, 1981). While the United States has been a major leader in the development of international norms of human rights, its abstention from the ratification of numerous conventions supported by the majority of the United Nations has greatly eroded the credibility of its moral leadership. To its credit, the United States has ratified several initiatives, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CEAFRD, 1969), and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT, 1984).

Who guards the guardians?

Why is the United States so aggressive in pursuing human rights violations elsewhere, yet so resistant to examining its own human rights situation? As Plato asked, "Who guards the guardians?" The reason the United States refuses to sign on to these conventions is simply that numerous domestic policy changes would have to be made were the United States forced to measure up to various international human rights standards. Indeed, legislation in the United States would be drastically transformed under the auspices of the numerous human rights conventions that the United States has refused to ratify. Current laws pertaining to children, poverty, welfare, and crime would be seriously affected if the United States were to confront them with the international human rights norms embodied in the ROC, CEDAW, and the CESCR. …

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