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Bringing Human Rights Home

Throughout its history, America's policies have alternatively embraced human rights, regarded them with ambivalence, or rejected them out of hand. The essays in this volume put these shifting political winds into a larger historical perspective, from the country's very beginnings to the present day.

Bringing Human Rights Home
A History of Human Rights in the United States

Edited by Cynthia Soohoo, Catherine Albisa, and Martha F. Davis

2009 | Abridged Edition
424 pages | Paper $37.50
Law / History
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Table of Contents

—Cynthia Soohoo, Martha F. Davis, and Catherine Albisa

Introduction to Part I
—Martha F. Davis
Chapter 1. A Human Rights Lens on U.S. History: Human Rights at Home and Human Rights Abroad
—Paul Gordon Lauren
Chapter 2. FDR's Four Freedoms and Wartime Transformations in America's Discourse of Rights
—Elizabeth Borgwardt
Chapter 3. A "Hollow Mockery": African Americans, White Supremacy, and the Development of Human Rights in the United States
—Carol Anderson
Chapter 4. "New" Human Rights? U.S. Ambivalence Toward the International Economic and Social Rights Framework
—Hope Lewis

Introduction to Part II
—Catherine Albisa
Chapter 5. Against American Supremacy: Rebuilding Human Rights Culture in the United States
—Dorothy Q. Thomas
Chapter 6. Economic and Social Rights in the United States: Six Rights, One Promise
—Catherine Albisa
Chapter 7. Human Rights and the Transformation of the "Civil Rights" and "Civil Liberties" Lawyer
—Cynthia Soohoo
Chapter 8. "Going Global": Appeals to International and Regional Human Rights Bodies
—Margaret Huang
Chapter 9. Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: States, Municipalities, and International Human Rights
—Martha F. Davis
Chapter 10. The Impact of September 11 and the Struggle Against Terrorism on the U.S. Domestic Human Rights Movement
—Wendy Patten
Chapter 11. Bush Administration Noncompliance with the Prohibition on Torture and Cruel and Degrading Treatment
—Kathryn Sikkink
Chapter 12. Trade Unions and Human Rights
—Lance Compa

About the Editors and Contributors

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. . . . Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.
—Eleanor Roosevelt

In the early 1990s, the term "U.S. human rights" would have probably elicited vague confusion and puzzled looks. Contemporary notions of human rights advocacy involved the criticism of rights abuses in other countries, and claims of human rights violations were leveled by, not at, the U.S. government. Although human rights documents and treaties purported to discuss universal rights obligations that applied to all countries, the prevailing wisdom was that the American people did not need human rights standards or international scrutiny to protect their rights. Many scholars and political scientists, who described themselves as "realists," expressed doubt that international human rights law could ever influence the behavior of a superpower such as the United States.

Yet segments of the American public have always believed that the struggle for human rights is relevant to the United States. One of the earliest uses of the term "human rights" is attributed to Frederick Douglass and his articulation of the fundamental rights of enslaved African Americans at a time when the United States did not recognize their humanity or their rights. At various times in U.S. history, the idea that all individuals have fundamental rights rooted in the concept of human dignity and that the international community might provide support in domestic rights struggles has resonated with marginalized and disenfranchised populations. Thus, it was no surprise that U.S. rights organizations, including the NAACP and American Jewish Congress, played a crucial role in the birth of the modern human rights movement. Both groups helped to ensure that human rights were included in the UN Charter.

Following the creation of the United Nations, many domestic social justice activists were interested in human rights standards and the development of international forums. Human rights offered the potential to expand both domestic concepts of rights and available forums and allies for their struggles. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Cold War imperatives forced mainstream social justice activists to limit their advocacy to civil claims rights, rather than broader human rights demands for economic and social rights, and to forgo international forums or criticism of the United States. At the same time, isolationists and Southern senators, opposed to international scrutiny of Jim Crow and segregation, were able to effectively prevent U.S. ratification of human rights treaties that required U.S. compliance with human rights standards.

As a result of these pressures, by the 1950s, the separation between international human rights and domestic civil rights appeared complete. Human rights advocacy came to be understood as involving challenges to oppressive regimes abroad, and domestic social justice activists focused on using civil rights claims within the domestic legal system to articulate and vindicate fundamental procedural and equality rights. Recent scholarship by Mary Dudziak and others point out that during the 1950s and 1960s, the United States' civil rights agenda was strongly influenced by concerns about international opinion because Jim Crow and domestic racial unrest threatened to undermine U.S. moral authority during the Cold War. However, although international pressures may have encouraged and supported reform within the United States, the main engine for change was the domestic legal system. Federal civil rights legislation and Supreme Court cases ending de jure segregation, expanding individual rights, and protecting the interests of poor people through the 1960s seemed to support the perception that the United States did not need human rights.

Soon after, however, the political climate began to shift. Changes on the Supreme Court led to a retreat in domestic protections of fundamental rights. By the end of the 1980s, the assault on domestic civil rights protections was well underway, as illustrated by political attacks on affirmative action and reproductive rights. Political leaders undermined long-standing social programs. President Ronald Reagan demonized the poor, claiming that welfare recipients were primarily defrauding the system and that women drove away from the welfare offices in Cadillacs. This image of the "welfare queen" created the foundation for further attacks on the rights of the poor in the years to come.

From the 1990s to the present, the deterioration of legal rights for Americans continued. Congress and increasingly conservative federal judges narrowed remedies for employment discrimination and labor violations and restricted prisoners' access to the courts. The legislature and executive branch over time also allotted fewer resources, and even less political will, to government enforcement of laws protecting Americans from job discrimination, health and safety violations in the workplace, and environmental toxins. Funding for legal services was cut.

Alongside this gradual unraveling of rights in the United States, global events shifted dramatically with the end of the Cold War. With new global political alignments and international dialogue, the standard politicization of human rights no longer made sense. This opened an important window of opportunity for activists in the United States. Human rights—including economic, social, and cultural rights—could now be claimed for all people, even those within the United States, without triggering accusations of aiding communist adversaries.

As the relevance of international human rights standards grew within the United States, even the federal judiciary took note. The Supreme Court issued a series of decisions citing international human rights standards regarding the death penalty and gay rights. These opinions were sharply criticized by the most reactionary politicians and members of the Court itself. In 2002, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas admonished his fellow justices not to "impose foreign moods, fads, or fashions on Americans." Reactionary pundits and scholars picked up on this theme arguing that compliance with human rights standards is antidemocratic because it overrules legislative decisions that constitute the will of the majority.

Nonetheless, the trend toward applying human rights in the United States continued to quietly and gradually deepen until a series of events jolted the American psyche and quickly moved the issue of human rights to the fore. These developments finally forced the mainstream public to consider what human rights had to do with us.

First, as the nation began to recover from the 9/11 attacks, many were shocked by the antiterrorism tactics of the Bush administration. To deflect criticism, the administration claimed that torture and cruel and degrading treatment were legal under U.S. law and that international law prohibitions on torture and cruel treatment were not relevant. Voices both within the United States and from the international community challenged the Bush administration, pointing out that torture is a universal human rights violation, no matter where it occurs.

Next, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina also provided a stark illustration that poor, minority, and marginalized communities need human rights protections and that domestic law falls well short of even articulating, much less remedying, a wide range of fundamental rights violations. This remains particularly true when affirmative government obligations to protect life, health, and well-being are involved. The government's abandonment of thousands of people too poor to own a car and the resulting hunger, thirst, chaos, and filth they suffered for many days and weeks after the storm shocked the conscience of Americans. People around the world were incredulous that the richest nation in the world failed to respond to the needs of its own people. Given an opportunity to rehabilitate its image after the storm, government actions instead deepened existing inequalities, oppression, and poverty of those affected. Katrina served as a wake-up call for the region's activists who have collectively embraced human rights as a rallying cry.

Post-9/11 the Supreme Court has served to moderate the worst excesses of the Bush administration's war on terror and, in closely contested cases, brought the United States in line with peer democratic countries by abolishing the juvenile death penalty and criminal restrictions on consensual homosexual conduct. However, the widening gap between U.S. law and international human rights standards was made brutally clear by the Supreme Court's 2007 decision striking down voluntary school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville. The case effectively overturned a significant part of Brown v. Board of Education and signaled an abandonment of the Court's historic role as protector of the vulnerable and marginalized in society. In direct opposition to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which allows and in some cases requires affirmative measures to remedy historic discrimination, the Seattle and Louisville case held that school desegregation programs voluntarily adopted by school boards constitute unconstitutional racial discrimination. In 2007, the Seattle and Louisville case appears as a harbinger of the battles yet to be fought on the much disputed territory of human rights in the United States.

This book tells the story of the domestic human rights movement from its early origins, through its retreat during the Cold War, to its recent resurgence and the reasons for it. It also describes the current movement by examining its strategies and methods. It is our hope that this book will provide greater understanding of the history and nature of the domestic human rights movement and in doing so respond to criticism that domestic human rights advocacy is foreign to U.S traditions and that it seeks to improperly impose the views and morals of the international community on the American people.

Although the history of U.S. involvement in the birth of the modern international human rights movement is well known, the parallel history of the struggle for human rights within the United States has been overlooked and forgotten. Part I reclaims the early history of the domestic human rights movement and examines the internal and external factors that forced its retreat. In Part II, we hope to provide a clearer picture of current human rights advocacy in the United States. Human rights work in the United States is often misunderstood because those who search for it tend to focus on legal forums, forays into international institutions, and human rights reports written by international human rights organizations. While such work is critically important and continues to grow, human rights education and organizing tends to get overlooked. As we tell the story of human rights advocacy in the United States and come to understand the current depth and diversity of the movement and its embrace by grassroots communities, the hollowness of antidemocratic criticism becomes clear. Rather than encompassing a set of foreign values that are imposed upon us, the fight for human rights in the United States is emerging both from the top down and the ground up.

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