Monday, May 15, 2017
by JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
In the wake of the U.S. failure to appear at the Inter-American hearings on the U.S. in March, human rights advocates, scholars, and a number of journalists tried to read the tea leaves to determine the significance of this move for U.S. human rights engagement globally and regionally. Of course, the implications of the United States’ direct engagement with human rights institutions (or lack thereof), can’t be viewed in isolation from whether and how U.S. dollars flow towards these institutions, or divorced from how U.S. foreign policy prerogatives impact human rights globally. But U.S. engagement and public positions offer important starting points for advocacy to strengthen human rights protections.
As Louis Henkin aptly noted in 1979, the United States has historically been “more like a flying buttress than a pillar” in the cathedral of human rights. Yet, these days, the U.S. appears to be chipping away at the foundation.
Of course, even when past Administrations articulated human rights as a foundation of U.S. policy, the reality at home and abroad has often significantly deviated from the rhetoric employed. U.S. human rights advocates have been among the chorus of voices consistently urging the United States to prioritize human rights in global engagement and domestic policymaking. Under the Obama Administration, progress was made in strengthening engagement with the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission, premised on the belief that representative democracies, along with “respect for human rights and civil society, and independent judiciaries and the rule of law,” are important foundations for human progress, and principles to which the United States was committed, at home and abroad.
While they have certainly been imperfect and under-realized, past presidential administrations’ commitments to human rights have provided an important grounding for advocacy. These commitments signaled that human rights were priorities to be advanced consistently and progressively over time. Such commitments also provided a starting point to hold the U.S. accountable to the ideals it espoused, and indicated dedication to the institutions that monitor and implement human rights. They offered a common language and opened up spaces for civil society dialogue.
But today, the common ground of human rights has all but disappeared. Even a veneer that human rights matter seems to have fallen away. This should not be surprising given the egregious policies this Administration has rolled out at home. Communities of color have been targeted with particular vehemence, but the safeguards in place to preserve the environment, meet fundamental needs like health and housing, and protect the basic civil rights of all of us are under assault. The Administration’s frontal attacks on human rights domestically, as well as beyond our borders are being tracked here in real time.
In this moment, we must continue to fight against efforts to sideline and ignore human rights. We must ensure that this Administration, the State Department, the White House, federal agencies, and Congress understand their human rights obligations, and we must demand that human rights are put into practice.
In one step in this direction, 50 U.S. human and civil rights organizations and individuals sent a letter to Secretary Tillerson last week, calling on the United States to prioritize U.S. leadership on human rights in its engagement with Inter-American Human Rights System and the OAS. Responding to the U.S. failure to appear at the March hearings, the letter emphasizes that leadership requires constructive U.S. participation in Inter-American proceedings, with the ultimate aim of bringing U.S. policies in line with international and regional human rights commitments. It highlights, as well, the need for ongoing U.S. resources and support for the Inter-American Commission and the OAS.
The upcoming June OAS General Assembly and the forthcoming IACHR periods of sessions are opportunities for the U.S. to demonstrate, and commit to, human rights. The world will be watching.