America’s Complicated Relationship with International Human Rights Norms
The U.S. has long had a love-hate relationship with international norms, having taken the lead in forging landmark human rights agreements while brushing off complaints over its own abuses, Nat Parry explains.
By Nat Parry
American exceptionalism – the notion that the United States is unique among nations due to its traditions of democracy and liberty – has always been the foundation of the nation’s claim to moral leadership. As a country founded on ideals that are today are recognized the world over as fundamental principles of international norms, the U.S. utilizes its image as a human rights champion to rally nations to its cause and assert its hegemony around the world.
Regardless of political persuasion, Americans proudly cite the influence that the founding principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have had on the rest of the world, with 80 percent agreeing that “the United States’ history and its Constitution … makes it the greatest country in the world” in a 2010 Gallup poll. Respecting these principles on the international level has long been considered a requisite for U.S. credibility and leadership on the global stage.
Much of this sentiment is an enduring testament to U.S. leadership following World War II, a period in which international legal principles of human rights and non-aggression were established, as well as the four decades of the Cold War, in which the “free world,” led by the United States, faced off against “totalitarian communism,” led by the Soviet Union.
During those years of open hostility between East and West, the U.S. could point not only to its founding documents as proof of its commitment to universal principles of freedom and individual dignity, but also to the central role it played in shaping the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Fourteen Points and Four Freedoms
While the U.S. didn’t fully assume its position as moral arbiter until after the Allied victory in World War II, its role in these matters had already been well-established with Woodrow Wilson’s professed internationalism. As expressed in his famous “Fourteen Points,” which sought to establish a rationale for U.S. intervention in the First World War, the United States would press to establish an international system based on “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”
Wilson had seen the First World War as evidence that the old international system established by the Europeans had failed to provide necessary security and stability, and sought to replace the old diplomacy with one based on cooperation, communication, liberalism and democracy.
Speaking on this issue throughout his presidency, he consistently advocated human rights and principles of self-determination.
“Do you never stop to reflect just what it is that America stands for?” Wilson asked in 1916. “If she stands for one thing more than another, it is for the sovereignty of self-governing peoples, and her example, her assistance, her encouragement, has thrilled two continents in this Western World with all the fine impulses which have built up human liberty on both sides of the water.”
These principles were expanded upon by subsequent American administrations, and especially by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his January 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt spelled out what he called “the Four Freedoms,” which later became the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“In the future days,” he said, “which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.”
He continued: “The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.”
Following the Allied victory over the Axis powers, FDR’s widow Eleanor Roosevelt took her late husband’s vision and attempted to make it a reality for the world through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Chairing the Commission on Human Rights, a standing body of the United Nations constituted to undertake the work of preparing what was originally conceived as an International Bill of Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt pushed to ensure that FDR’s “four freedoms” were reflected in the document.
Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the Commission decided that the declaration should be a brief and inspirational document accessible by common people, and envisioned it to serve as the foundation for the remainder of an international bill of human rights. It thus avoided the more difficult problems that had to be addressed when the binding treaty came up for consideration, namely what role the state should have in enforcing rights within its territory, and whether the mode of enforcing civil and political rights should be different from that for economic and social rights.
As stated in its preamble, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
Much of the language in the Declaration echoed language contained in the founding documents of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Whereas the U.S. Declaration of Independence articulates the “unalienable right” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
While the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” the UDHR provides that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression” and that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Whereas the Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishments,” the UDHR bars “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Although the United States made it clear that it could not support a legally binding UDHR, it readily endorsed the final document as a political declaration, one of 48 nations to vote in favor of the Declaration at the UN General Assembly in December 1948. With no votes in opposition and just eight abstentions – mostly from Eastern Bloc countries including the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Poland – the Declaration served as a defining characteristic of the contrast between East and West in those early days of the Cold War.
A Small Problem
There was of course one small problem. Despite the United States formally embracing “universal human rights” on the international stage, its respect for those rights domestically was considerably lacking. Throughout the country and especially in the South, African Americans endured racist segregation policies and were routinely denied the right to vote and other civil rights.
Lynching, while not as pervasive as its heyday earlier in the century, was still a major problem, with dozens of blacks murdered with impunity by white lynch mobs throughout the 1940s.
In 1947, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed an “Appeal to the World” petition in the United Nations that denounced racial discrimination in the United States as “not only indefensible but barbaric.” The American failure to respect human rights at home had international implications, argued the NAACP. “The disenfranchisement of the American Negro makes the functioning of all democracy in the nation difficult; and as democracy fails to function in the leading democracy in the world, it fails the world,” read the NAACP petition.
The NAACP’s appeal provoked an international sensation, with the organization flooded with requests for copies of the document from the governments of the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the Union of South Africa, among others. According to NAACP chief Walter White, “It was manifest that they were pleased to have documentary proof that the United States did not practice what it preached about freedom and democracy.”
The U.S. delegation to the UN refused to introduce the NAACP petition to the United Nations, fearing that it would cause further international embarrassment. The Soviet Union, however, recommended that the NAACP’s claims be investigated. The Commission on Human Rights rejected that proposal on December 4, 1947, and no further official action was taken.
According to W.E.B. DuBois, the principle author of the petition, the United States “refused willingly to allow any other nation to bring this matter up.” If it had been introduced to the General Assembly, Eleanor Roosevelt would have “probably resign[ed] from the United Nations delegation,” said DuBois. This was despite the fact that she was a member of the NAACP board of directors. While Roosevelt’s commitment to racial justice may have been strong, it was clear that her embarrassment over the U.S.’s failures to respect the “four freedoms” at home was even stronger.
It was in this context that the United States endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. That year also marked the beginning of tentative steps the U.S. began making towards respecting basic rights within its borders.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces. The next month, the Democratic Party included a civil rights plank in its platform. “The Democratic Party,” read the platform adopted at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, “commits itself to continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination.”
While there was clearly a domestic motivation for embracing the cause of civil rights (presidential adviser Clark Clifford had presented a lengthy memorandum to President Truman in 1947 which argued that the African-American vote was paramount for winning the 1948 election), there was also a strong international component to the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights.
UN Bragging Rights
In addition to its civil rights plank, the 1948 Democratic platform included a wholehearted endorsement of the recently established United Nations, and expressed “the conviction that the destiny of the United States is to provide leadership in the world toward a realization of the Four Freedoms.” But the Democrats recognized that the U.S. had a long way to go to realizing those four freedoms at home.
“We call upon the Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American Principles: (1) the right of full and equal political participation; (2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; (3) the right of security of person; (4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation,” the platform stated.
The Democratic platform also proudly pointed to the accomplishment of organizing the United Nations: “Under the leadership of a Democratic President and his Secretary of State, the United Nations was organized at San Francisco. The charter was ratified by an overwhelming vote of the Senate. We support the United Nations fully and we pledge our whole-hearted aid toward its growth and development.”
For its part, the Republican Party also embraced the fledgling UN, stating in its 1948 platform that “Our foreign policy is dedicated to preserving a free America in a free world of free men. This calls for strengthening the United Nations and primary recognition of America’s self-interest in the liberty of other peoples.” While the Democrats pointed to the president’s leadership for helping establish the UN, the Republicans also wanted to make sure that they received due credit. Their party platform listed “a fostered United Nations” as one of the main accomplishments of the Republican Congress, despite “frequent obstruction from the Executive Branch.”
As “the world’s best hope” for “collective security against aggression and in behalf of justice and freedom,” the Republicans pledged to “support the United Nations in this direction, striving to strengthen it and promote its effective evolution and use.” The UN “should progressively establish international law,” said the Republicans, “be freed of any veto in the peaceful settlement of international disputes, and be provided with the armed forces contemplated by the Charter.”
As a major component of the progressive establishment of international law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was to be codified into legally binding treaties.
Although the Declaration was endorsed by the U.S. and 47 other countries in December 1948, the two corresponding legally binding covenants to define the obligations of each state required another two decades of work. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were ready for ratification in 1966, some 18 years later.
The United States became a signatory to both covenants on Oct. 5, 1977. It ratified the ICCPR on June 8, 1992, but to this date has not fully subscribed to the ICESCR, one of just seven countries in the world not to ratify the agreement.
Cold War Context
Throughout those years, the U.S. was engaged in an intense ideological battle with the Soviet Union, in which human rights were used as a rhetorical weapon by each side against the other. While American leaders chastised the Soviets for their failures to respect fundamental liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of association, the USSR could readily point to the blatant institutionalized racism that plagued American society.
Racial discrimination belied America’s rhetoric about democracy and equality, making the U.S. cause of freedom look like a sham especially to people of color in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Soviets enthusiastically exploited the issue, imbuing their anti-capitalist propaganda with tales of horrors suffered by African Americans.
So, in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional and ordered that school integration proceed “with all deliberate speed,” the case was trumpeted by the American establishment as evidence of the great strides being made toward full equality for all citizens.
At times, racial discrimination in the United States caused such international embarrassment that the State Department would pressure the White House to intervene. In 1957, for example, when a Federal District Court ordered the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to allow African-American students to attend, Governor Orval Faubus declared that he would refuse to comply with the decree. Several hundred angry and belligerent whites confronted nine African-American students who attempted to enter the school on September 4, 1957.
The National Guard, called up by Faubus, blocked the students from entering the school. Pictures of the angry mob, the frightened African-American students, and armed National Guardsmen were seen all over the world, and the Soviets eagerly seized on the propaganda.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles informed President Dwight Eisenhower that the Little Rock incident was damaging the United States’ credibility abroad, and could cost the U.S. the support of other nations in the UN. Eisenhower attempted to negotiate a settlement with Faubus, but when that failed, he sent in federal troops. The nine African-American students were finally allowed to attend Central High under the armed protection of the United States military.
The developing international human rights project led to deep ideological divisions in the United States, with some conservatives, especially in the South, concerned that the national government would use international human rights law to promote national civil rights reforms. Arguing that the civil rights question was beyond the scope of Congress’s authority and concerned about the constitutional power of treaties, conservatives launched several attempts in the 1950s to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit the government’s ability to subscribe to treaties.
Those failed efforts to amend the Constitution were based on the premise that the federal government had no say in the matters of states and localities in regulating race relations, and that since Article VI of the Constitution provides treaties the status of “supreme law of the land,” the U.S. would find itself subjected to the whims of the international community on these matters.
Those fears would prove unfounded, since the U.S. didn’t formally subscribe to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights until 1977, long after most of the relevant domestic civil rights legislation had been adopted, but the right-wing opposition to U.S. submission to international norms had become thoroughly established as American conservative orthodoxy.
Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.