Monday, March 24, 2014

Comparing Human Rights Practices

In today's entry, co-editor Jonathan Todres, Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University College of Law and a  leading scholar working on human rights of children, considers how international standards should be applied across nations with very different political systems, cultural practices and economic situations.

Professor Todres writes:

Last week, the U.N. Human Rights Committee held its official session with the United States to review the U.S. government’s progress under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is typical during these review periods for US-based opponents of the international human rights system to argue that the United States is a leader on human rights and therefore should not have to be reviewed by others. In the case of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child , the most widely-ratified human rights treaty in history (193 countries are party to the CRC; only the U.S., Somalia, and recently-independent South Sudan are not), a related argument is made by opponents: why ratify the CRC when children in other countries that are party to the CRC are worse off.

Setting aside the accuracy of such accusations (e.g., the U.S. now ranks 40th in under-five mortality), they raise a more fundamental question: what is the right comparison for the United States in terms of progress on human rights? It is certainly the case that children in many low income countries face more significant obstacles to their rights than most children in the United States. However, using a comparative argument to defend U.S. human rights practices is problematic from both a legal and moral standpoint.

From a legal standpoint, human rights treaties impose a mandate on a country to ensure the rights of individuals subject to that country’s jurisdiction. Whether Malawi or Mauritania or any other country has ensured particular rights of its children is irrelevant to an assessment of U.S. compliance with similar human rights obligations, obligations that the U.S. voluntarily undertakes when ratifying a treaty.

From a moral standpoint, the comparative argument is the proverbial slippery slope. Should we really take pride in the fact that our human rights record is better than those of notably repressive governments? Or even when comparing the U.S. with other countries that do reasonably well on human rights, should we celebrate the fact that the U.S. is better even when children within our borders go hungry at night, are subjected to various forms of abuse and exploitation, or suffer other rights violations? The answer is obviously no.

Even though many children are able to realize their rights and develop to their fullest potential in the United States, millions still suffer various violations of their rights. Ernest Hemingway identified the right comparison years ago when he wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

As the U.S. government and advocates draw lessons from the ICCPR review, and as the Obama Administration and Senate contemplate action on other human rights treaties (including the CRC, CEDAW, and CRPD), the task should be to identify the steps necessary to ensure that we end up better than we are today.

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