Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Where There is a Will, There is a Way

Penny Venetis calls upon the U.S. to implement all Human Rights Treaties.  Is the U.S.  morally flawed in focusing its efforts on international trafficking while ignoring other vulnerable populations? 

 Where There is a Will, There is a Way:  The U.S. Should Implement All Human Rights Treaties That it Has Ratified With the Same Vigor That It Has Shown in Attempting to Eradicate Human Trafficking.

by Penny Venetis

The United States continues to come under criticism by the international community for failing to implement human rights treaties that it has already ratified, and for failing to ratify other major human rights treaties.   This was demonstrated most recently in 2013, when Congress rejected the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by 128 countries.   Even though the treaty was modeled on our very own forward-thinking Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and supported by Republican stalwarts like former Senator Bob Dole, the treaty died in the Senate in a 61 to 38 vote.

The United States has ratified only four of seven foundational international human rights treaties: the Genocide Convention in 1988; the ICCPR in 1992; CERD in 1994; and the Convention Against Torture also in 1994.  Remarkably, it took the U.S. nearly 40 years to ratify the uncontroversial Genocide Convention.  But, these treaties remain unenforceable domestically because Congress has saddled them with RUDs, or “reservations, understandings and declarations.” The most extreme type of RUD is the “non-self executing” RUD, which stays treaty enforcement indefinitely, unless Congress passes enabling legislation to enforce the treaty.  As such, what should be powerful declarations of fundamental rights are empty ceremonial pronouncements.

Adding insult to injury, Congress’s implementing legislation to enforce two of these four treaties -- Genocide Convention and Torture Convention -- radically watered them down; so much so, that our country, sadly, is still engaged in an active debate over whether our government should engage in torture.

The only notable exception to the U.S.’s poor human rights treaty ratification and implementation record is the “Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children,” part of the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.  This is the only human rights treaty ratified by the U.S. that has been  implemented with rigor.

  The United States ratified the “Palermo Protocol” in 2000, and immediately set to work on enforcing it.  Congress passed domestic implementing legislation in the form of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA).  The TVPA was re-authorized and strengthened four times since then-in 2003, 2006, 2008, and most recently in 2013.   Additionally, every state has enacted and implemented both criminal and civil anti-trafficking laws that mirror the Palermo Protocol and TVPA.   Legislatures have also made money available to train law enforcement in anti-trafficking techniques, and for anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns.

This is not to say that all aspects of federal and state anti-trafficking laws are perfect.  The money allocated for training barely scratches the surface.  Also, sex trafficking victims who are prostituted (including children) are processed through the criminal justice system and prosecuted, rather than being given needed services.  Although they may move to expunge their criminal records, they still suffer great harm by being treated as criminals rather than victims.

But, it is laudable that the U.S. has finally taken its international responsibilities seriously.  The human rights community should use the U.S.’s embrace of the Palermo Protocol as a advocacy tool.  We should argue that Congress and all 50 states have shown that they are fully capable of enforcing a human rights treaties domestically, and taking action to try to end horrendous abuses.  If government, at all levels, can coalesce around ending modern day slavery, then it can certainly do the same to eradicate torture, racism and other abuses that the U.S. has promised the world it would end. 

Human rights advocates can de-mystify human rights treaties and urge their enforcement by pointing to the TVPA and comparable state laws.  Anti-trafficking laws show that where there is a will, there is a way to enforce our human rights obligations.  Those laws also show that international treaties should not be treated with suspicion as “foreign” or “other.”   Rather, they should and can be embraced and enforced as the “supreme law of the land,” as envisioned by the Constitution.

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