Despite early leadership in creating the international human rights framework, the United States continues to struggle with ensuring that human rights are protected both at home and abroad.
A Leader in the Creation of the International Human Rights Framework
The United States was an early leader in developing international human rights law, both in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, and by playing a prominent role at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunals. However, in the 1950s, conflicting foreign policy interests during the Cold War led the U.S. to withdraw its support for, and sometimes directly oppose the international human rights system.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States renewed its commitment by signing, though not ratifying, several core human rights treaties, including: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Moreover, in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States ratified some treaties, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1987), the ICCPR (1992), the ICERD (1994), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) (1994). Finally, in 2000, the U.S. signed the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, though it made clear in 2002 that it would not ratify that treaty. When the U.S. signs but does not ratify a treaty, it ensures the treaty does not become legally binding in the U.S. However, international law requires that the U.S. not frustrate the object and purpose of any treaty it signs.
The United States reports to several international monitoring bodies responsible for ensuring compliance with international human rights law and policy, both at the United Nations and as part of the Inter-American Human Rights System. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights promotes and monitors the United States’ compliance with the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man through public hearings, on-site visits, review of petitions, and thematic reporting.
At the U.N., the U.S. reports to three treaty monitoring bodies: the Human Rights Committee, on the ICCPR, the Committee Against Torture, on CAT, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, on ICERD. The United Nations Human Rights Council also continually monitors human rights conditions in the U.S. more generally and every four years reviews its compliance with the UDHR during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
International Human Rights in the United States
To be enforceable in the U.S., human rights standards must be implemented through local, state, and/or federal law. The U.S. has implemented some of its human rights obligations by enacting the Torture Victims Protection Act, which CJA uses in many of its cases, and by criminalizing torture, genocide, and war crimes. However, few prosecutions have been brought using these statutes, these exceptions include the prosecutions of Michael Sang Correa and Chuckie Taylor for torture.
The United States has failed to ratify many international human rights treaties. For example, it is one of the few countries in the world that has ratified neither the Convention on the Rights of the Child nor the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, we saw the creation of an unprecedented torture program by the Bush Administration as part of its so-called “war on terror.” Authorized at the highest levels of government, a program of cruel psychological and physical abuse was applied to detainees in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay and other U.S.-controlled sites around the world.
Though President Barack Obama ended the CIA torture program, his administration continued to imprison, without trial, close to two dozen detainees at the Guantánamo Bay facility and refused to hold accountable those responsible for the Bush-era torture program. The Obama administration also greatly increased U.S. reliance on targeted assassinations and surveillance in its fight against terrorism.
During the Trump administration, the United States accelerated its decline in the protection of human rights at home and abroad. The extrajudicial killings of Black Americans and state violence in communities of color continues unabated, and we have seen an unprecedented scale of inhumane detention and family separation of migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S. border. Meanwhile, the government’s continued refusal to hold U.S. officials accountable for their roles in war crimes and torture in connection with the war in Afghanistan took a dramatic turn with the sanctioning of members of the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor for its investigations into war crimes in Afghanistan.
CJA works on only a small fraction of the human rights issues in the United States and is privileged to partner with and work alongside many of others in the struggle to hold the United States to its international human rights obligations at home and abroad.