Human Rights Day 2012: Why America Should Not Celebrate, Even Though We Think We Should


International Human Rights Day is on December 10 every year and is observed by hundreds of nations around the globe. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights serves as the nucleus and was adopted on this date in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II. The international community vowed to never allow the atrocities of WWII to happen again, creating an international law framework for human rights.

But one must wonder: How can international law protect human rights? International human rights law sets down obligations, which party States are bound to respect. By becoming parties to international treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. The obligation to respect means States must not interfere or curtail the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect means States must protect individuals against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfill means States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.

Now that we have the jargon out of the way, here are several reasons why we as Americans don’t deserve to celebrate it.

This is away-game territory for the U.S. government and its citizens, an area we believe we know well. But we continue to perform poorly when it comes to human rights.

1) Treaties. The U.S. has historically behaved here like the parent who is much better at teaching through words as opposed to actions. The adage, “Do as I say, not as I do,” often comes to mind. For example, the U.S. has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But it declined to do so for the Covenant’s Optional Protocol, which would allow Americans to seek remedy through the UN for alleged rights violations by the U.S. government. The implication is that the U.S. believes it is acceptable for other nations to sign onto this protocol and for their citizens to attempt to use it. But it is not acceptable for U.S. citizens to have this option of redressability.

Why should the U.S. celebrate a day dedicated to human rights when it openly took steps to avoid obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights? Every other country in the world, except for Somalia and the U.S., has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. When you think of the U.S. and Somalia, pirates and Black Hawk Down usually come to mind. But sharing views on the rights of children certainly is not the first thought to dance across your mind.

It would seem that the U.S. and Somalia should huddle in solidarity when the rest of the world spotlights the rights of children. Something is wrong with that picture.

2) The constant desire to hide our ill deeds in history. Pick up any U.S. history book and you will traditionally find a shining view of our nation, free of faults and failures. The eradication of Native Americans usually does not even garner a footnote. Slavery, whose after-effects are still present today in one nuance or another, is given us to as a way of life that ended promptly at the end of the Civil War. It did not (If you disagree, check out Exhibit A and Exhibit B). The current political struggle over how to handle gays and Latinos will surely get the same sort of treatment down the road.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a call to action, imploring nations to openly discuss and protect human rights. But if the self-proclaimed “most powerful nation on Earth” cannot do this, why should it be able to celebrate a day dedicated to human rights? Germany’s history is darkened by the Holocaust and South Africa’s is the same with Apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was particularly efficient with encouraging individuals on both sides of the conflict to come together and discuss what had happened for the sake of moving on and strengthening the community as a whole. And everyone can look up the history about this and learn.

Here in America, yes we have the Bill of Rights and several amendments dedicated to human rights. But we do not like to recognize our own human rights’ failures enough to put them on paper and we certainly do not like to discuss them openly. Take the Civil Rights era for example: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices responsible for disenfranchising African Americans. This should have been an indefinite destruction of those barriers. But it was not. The VRA contains temporary provisions that were renewed in 1970, 1975, 1982, and most recently in 2006. How can the U.S. openly spend tax-payer’s dollars on getting free and fair elections for countries in the Middle East like Iraq and Libya when the guarantee for the same thing at home is still open to debate?

3) U.S. humanitarian intervention choices. This is the dark horse of the reasons. The U.S. has been as indecisive and arbitrary as these characters when deciding to get involved in one humanitarian crisis over another. Just to name a few: Bosnia, Congo, Iraq, Libya, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. In each of these situations, the human rights of individuals on the ground were violated (and sometimes ended in death) and should have called the U.S. to take action no matter who the people were or why they were suffering. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights draws forth this obligation.

But politics come into play and completely change the game. Suddenly, it is more advantageous to calculate how valuable time, resources, and relationships are against a human life. And usually, many lives are lost before an action is decided upon and executed. Since the U.S. has traditionally weighed its options and considered if the human rights of individuals of the countries mentioned above were worth saving, it only seems appropriate that it does not deserve to celebrate a day specifically dedicated to recognizing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.