International Mavericks: A Comparative Analysis of Selected Human Rights and Foreign Policy Issues in Iran and the United States

By Cohan, Carolyn Cox | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

International Mavericks: A Comparative Analysis of Selected Human Rights and Foreign Policy Issues in Iran and the United States


Cohan, Carolyn Cox, The George Washington International Law Review


INTRODUCTION The question "Why do nations obey international law?"1 suggests a follow-up query: "Why do nations refuse to obey international law?" Starting down that path, a student of American law interested in international human rights might well ask: "Why does the United States, with an entire bureaucracy devoted to measuring other nations' protection of their citizens' human rights, not sign and ratify all international human rights treaties and join in the U.N.-sponsored multilateral efforts to enhance the protection of human rights around the world?" Stated more generally, the inquiry might be "Why do states resist international human rights law?" This study considers whether a comparison of two nations, the United States and Iran, that have resisted signing most international human rights treaties reveals common characteristics illuminating the general question here, or, failing that, whether such a comparison sheds useful light on the resistance of either nation studied.

Professor George M. Fredrickson, an historian who has published extensively on the subject of slavery and race relations in the United States and South Africa, describes methods of comparative historical analysis and refers to a study of two countries as a crossnational or bilateral comparison. Fredrickson notes the increasing use of " `comparative perspective' as a tool of analysis," by which an author "employs general knowledge of an external example or examples of a phenomenon to determine what is characteristic or distinctive about the manifestation of that phenomenon within a single society."2. This article may be characterized, using Fredrickson's terminology, as a study-from a comparative perspective-of factors underlying the United States' resistance to international human rights treaties using a cross-national comparison of Iran and the United States.

Comparative analysis here is applied on two levels. In addition to comparing Iran and the United States with each other, each nation is also compared to a group of its allies or neighbors to demonstrate the degree to which both nations stand apart from the international community and are unique within their own cultural or geographic neighborhoods. This maverick quality provides the historic strength, or arrogance, required for an ambitious nation to decline enthusiastic participation in the widely acclaimed, if not scrupulously observed, multilateral human rights regime in either truth or appearance. Intending to provide as much information on Iran as about the United States, there is no avoiding the conclusion that an American's analysis of Iran, broadly based entirely on English-language sources of the subject must be taken as less than authoritative.3

This study is organized, first, to quantify and describe how the United States and Iran have officially dealt with the principal international human rights treaties promulgated over the last several decades. The second and third sections place each nation in its historic and cultural context and briefly examine some of the important differences between the subjects and their neighbors and allies. Iran and the United States are directly compared to each other in the fourth section, discussing selected aspects of the foreign policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in the fifth section, reviewing domestic policies. The aspects, issues, and policies examined in these two sections were selected for their relevance to human rights treaties, as well as for their amenability to comparison. No attempt is made to evaluate the relative significance of the many issues and policies not selected. The sixth section highlights the similarities of the fundamentalist aspect of religion that has had a significant impact on domestic and foreign policy in both Iran and the United States over the last few decades. Finally, the concluding section offers some judgments as to the complex of factors operating in each country that block official acceptance of most international human rights treaties.

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International Mavericks: A Comparative Analysis of Selected Human Rights and Foreign Policy Issues in Iran and the United States
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