International Human Rights in the U.S.: A Critique

By Maran, Rita | Social Justice, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

International Human Rights in the U.S.: A Critique


Maran, Rita, Social Justice


Introduction

When, in October of 1998, Amnesty International(1) (AI) launched a worldwide campaign focusing on human rights abuses in the United States of America, it came as something of a shock to a public more accustomed to AI campaigns that target other countries. The campaign, "Rights for All," added the U.S. to the list of countries that includes Turkey, China, Sudan, Indonesia, and Colombia, about which Amnesty International has over the years conducted intensive public campaigns. Amnesty International of the USA(2) Executive Director William F. Schulz announced, in launching the campaign in Washington, D.C., that "we must excise from our public life those manifestations of bias and mistreatment that stain our reputations and soil our souls."(3)

The notion that human rights abuses in the U.S. might be the object of an inquiry by a human rights organization that regularly deals with countries whose practices warrant intensive, critical reports proved offensive to some in the U.S. Just after the public release of the book Rights for All, which was published to accompany the U.S. campaign, Representative Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, 12th District, indicated that it was hardly the place of AI to look at human rights in this country, where rights are well known to be highly held and broadly observed. Representative Lantos' concern went to the inappropriateness of putting this country in the same spotlight that is, he believes, more correctly shone on countries like Tunisia or Colombia. The coupling of the good name of Lantos' adopted country with that of repressive states roused the dedicated legislator to sanctimonious outrage. As longtime co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus of the House of Representatives, Lantos considers himself no stranger to efforts to end abuses of rights in other countries.(4) Coincidentally, Representative Lantos had just weeks earlier sent a special thank-you to AIUSA members in California through his legislative assistant. Hans Hogrefe addressed the organization via e-mail, and called the efforts of the AIUSA groups "crucial" to passage of the Human Rights Information Act, a House Resolution introduced by Representative Lantos to create a process to review and declassify U.S. documents about human rights violations in Honduras and Guatemala.(5)

Reacting to the same campaign from the opposite end of the spectrum, Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, held hearings in the Detroit City Council concerning abuses of human rights in Michigan's State Prisons. Prisoners' rights advocates, legal experts, and formerly incarcerated women, along with AI representatives from the U.S. and from AI headquarters in London participated in the hearing.(6)

In this article, we will consider the three agents in what is here conceptualized as a tripartite relationship: first, Amnesty International, with emphasis on its campaign on the United States; second, salient human rights mechanisms and procedures of the United Nations system as they relate to AI and to the United States; and third, related United States human rights policies, practices, and formal obligations.

I. Amnesty International (AI) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA)

AI Historically

At the time of AI's founding in 1961, the organization was a "first." No other broad-based membership human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were in existence. AI began its operations modestly and conservatively; it made no statements it could not back up; it attributed no violations that were not well documented; it named no names. AI took the high, dry conservative road, with unassailably correct and accurate statements dealing mainly with human rights violations. One of AI's main purposes was to seek the release of those imprisoned "anywhere in the world for their beliefs." Its relatively narrow mandate was limited to civil and political rights; it did not deal directly with economic, social, and cultural rights. …

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