Executing Human Rights

The United States versus the United Nations

by Henry Rosemont, Jr.

Resist newsletter, January 2000


The propaganda machines of the Departments of State and "Defense" ("Aggression" would be more accurate) have been hard at work for more than a decade now, seeking a blanket expression to justify US adventurism abroad that would do the work that "communist subversion" did for the prior half-century. The "war on drugs" has been put forth strenuously, but has proved difficult to apply beyond Latin America, and is, finally, beginning to sound spurious even when applied to that area. "Rogue states" has also been bandied about, but only justifies our doing as we please within even narrower geographic ranges: Cuba, Iraq, Libya, etc.

"Human Rights abusers" is the current term of art, which was effectively employed as a warrant for the NATO/US killings in Kosovo and Serbia. This term will probably not be around for very long either, however, because most of the major violators of human rights (Indonesia, China, Nigeria, to name only a few) have governments compliant with the wishes of US and multinational corporate interests.

And given that the State and "Defense" Departments are almost wholly-owned subsidiaries of those corporations, they cannot use the expression "human rights abusers" unless its usage has first been cleared with the relevant CEOs. Such clearance will very probably only be given when the "abuses" are in such areas of human rights the business executives consider important: intellectual and other property rights, for example, or the right to repatriate all profits from an overseas unit, or the right to speculate in foreign currencies without restrictions.

Everyone knowledgeable about when and where the US has intervened in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations ostensibly to further "human rights"-or its no less semantically-distorted cousins "freedom" and "democracy"-can see how hollow the rhetoric has been, even though, thanks to the standard media, the general public can still be called upon, on occasion, to "support our troops" in destructive endeavors.

What is perhaps less well known is that successive US governments do not even take human rights seriously in theory, much less in practice (except for the rights of corporations to pillage pretty much as they please); this can be seen clearly by examining the record of the US in the United Nations.

The UN has put forth 25 international \~ instruments (covenants and conventions) dealing with human rights issues since promulgating the Universal Declaration in 1948. The US has ratified 10 of them. In contrast, Canada and the UK, for instance, have ratified 17; Italy, France, Sweden, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand have ratified 18; 20 for Denmark, and Germany has ratified 23 of the 25.

The record becomes more deplorable when we look at the contents of those 25 instruments. Alone among all of the countries listed above, the US has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, drawn from the Universal Declaration (which was described by former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick as "A Letter to Santa Claus").

Among others, the US has also not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others; Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; and the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families. And while the US has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we have not ratified it-the only one of the 192 member states of the UN not to do so.

This sorry record on human rights legal thinking does not improve when we turn to the UN covenants and conventions the US has ratified; on the contrary, it gets worse. Consider the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, first promulgated in 1966 (but not ratified by the US until 1992). In order to make the Covenant effective, an Optional Protocol was promulgated at the same time, signatories to which agreed to the jurisdiction of the UN Human Rights Committee to hear charges of Covenant violations brought by a member state or individual. Article I of the Optional Protocol closes with the following:

No communication shall be received by The Committee if it concerns a Party to the Covenant which is not a party to the present Protocol.

Of the 140 signatories to the Covenant, 93 have also ratified the Optional Protocol; guess which major nation is not among them. Thus, even though the US has ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, no charges of violations thereof can be brought before the UN unless the US agrees to it; it is equally easy to guess how often that agreement will be forthcoming. (Amoral and rational person might now ask why we even bothered to ratify the Covenant if we had no intention of ratifying the Optional Protocol. Two reasons: for propaganda effect, and the fact that all and only Covenant signatories are eligible for seats on the Human Rights Committee.)

In effect, then, the US has signed on to 9, not 10, of the 25 UN international instruments, but in legal fact has actually signed on to virtually none. Every instrument ratified by the US has been accompanied by caveats: in legal parlance, "reservations, understandings, and declarations"- RUDs. All signatories to UN Human Rights instruments enter RUDs on occasion, but they are not like those entered by the US.

What most of our RUDs have in common is that the provisions therein be non-enforceable in the US. Put more simply, the US insists that none of its citizens-or the citizens of any other nation can bring suit against it in the US for purported violations of the human rights set forth in the covenants and conventions to which it has formally subscribed. It is hard to imagine a more blatant example of hypocrisy.

Not all thinking about human rights on the part of the US government is hypocritical, however: at times, violations thereof are advanced both in fact and in principle. The treatment of prisoners in the US is one telling example. Although we very probably have fewer purely political prisoners in this country than in many others, our treatment of prisoners violates all of the relevant human rights covenants and conventions of the UN, and this treatment continues to be validated by both state and federal courts and legislatures. From the increasing use of electro-shock stun guns to constant strip-searches, the incarcerated are humiliated and brutalized. Socialization-necessary if the spark of humanity is to be kept, or re-ignited-is systematically denied to many prisoners, either by placing violently opposing groups together white supremacists with blacks, homophobes with gays, etc.-or by round-the-clock solitary confinement.

To the chagrin of many political flag-wavers, Amnesty International focused its attention in 1998 not on an Afghanistan or North Korea, but on the United States. Its research and conclusions have recently been published in the United States Of America: Rights for All, along with pamphlets on specific abuses such as stun guns. Central to their manifold condemnations of US human rights violations are those visited on prisoners, and these should be read by every US citizen, whose taxes underwrite those abuses.

Ugly and/or hypocritical as all of the above illustrations of US disdain for human rights may be, they are not the worst of it; in the cruel disregard for the concept of the sanctity of human life, all three branches of the government display a way of thinking that must be revolting to every human being who takes the concept seriously.

When the US ratified the Convention'' , Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, it included among its RUDs the following ( statement:

The United States understands that international law does not prohibit the death penalty, and does not consider this Convention to restrict or prohibit the United States from applying the death penalty consistent with the Fifth, Eighth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution...

No other modern, democratic nation state has entered this specific RUD; as is all too often the case, the US stands alone in its theoretical, as well as its actual disdain for the concept of human rights on this issue.

And even more troubling is the fact that our lack of respect for human rights applies to children no less than adults. Since 1990, the US has kept company only with Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in executing people for crimes committed as children; but we have outdone them, having killed more of the condemned than the other four combined. Consider the following statistics compiled by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty:

* 344 people who were sent to death row as children have been executed in the United States.

* 143 children have been sentenced to death since 197X.

* Execution of children has doubled in the last decade.

* In 1996, prosecutors sought the death penalty for juveniles as young as 13 years of age.

* Twelve of the 50 states have no minimum age for death penalty sentences.

* Two of every three children sent to death row are children of color, and a similar ratio applies to executions.

* Of nine women executed in the US for crimes committed as children, eight were Black and one was Native American.

It should thus be apparent why the United States is the only one of the 192 member states of the United Nations not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child; alone in the world, US children don't seem to have these rights. But the US is consistent in this regard, for adults, or larger groupings, or even other nation states, don't have many of them either. Rather it seems that only corporations really have rights, and if these are not duly respected by other nation states, those states will be labeled as "human rights abusers," and subjected to whatever degree of murderous violence we elect to impose on them until they come to respect "human rights" as the term has been defined for them by the United States of America.


Henry Rosemont, Jr. teaches philosophy at St. Mary s College of Maryland, and has been a Resist Board Member since 1969. Materials for this article were taken from a number of United Nations documents, Amnesty International materials, data collected by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and several prisoners 'rights groups supported by Resist. Specific citations can be provided by writing to him c/o the Resist office.

Human Rights, Justice, Reform