Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Threat to Americans' Human Rights

Note: I originally wrote the blog below for a bipartisan US website called Divided We Fall. It was posted on October 5, 2020. Here is the link to the original post, with a reply by Prof. Catherine Renshaw of Australia. https://dividedwefall.com/2020/10/05/human-rights/ I was asked to write about threats to Americans' human rights from both the political left and the political right, and decided to do so from the point of view of international human rights law, which makes it clear that the far larger threat is from the right.

Threats to Americans’ Human Rights

International Human Rights Law

In the midst of the 2020 campaign for the US Presidency, many people worry that both the political left and the political right are undermining human rights. This article compares human rights in the US to international human rights law, in order to assess these possible threats.

Three documents comprise the International Bill of Rights. Along with other UN members, in 1948 the US voted for the non-binding 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two 1976 treaties elaborated on the UDHR and transformed it into international law. They are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Civil and Political Rights

The US ratified the ICCPR in 1992. Ratification means that a government has consented to be bound by a treaty.

The ICCPR protects such rights as freedom of thought and expression (freedom of speech) and peaceful assembly. It also protects the right to vote and to participate in public affairs, the rule of law, and the rights of people detained by the police. And it protects freedom of religion. 

Some American leftists would like to deny freedom of speech to some individuals or categories of people. These leftists practice identity politics. They believe that everything an individual says can be explained by their identity, for example as a white male.

Many identity politics leftists have campaigned to restrict freedom of speech, especially on US campuses. This trend to restrict freedom of speech is indeed worrisome, and should be combatted. 

Freedom of speech is a core human right. No one should be denied their right to freedom of speech because of their identity, either as Black or White, or female or male.

But the leftist threat to freedom of speech is far from the most important threat to civil and political rights in the US today. That threat comes from the political right, specifically the Republican Party and President Donald Trump.

The right to vote has never been well-protected in the US. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans and other minorities had to fight for it. In some US states, convicted felons are not permitted to vote, even after they have served their sentences. In 2016, only 64 per cent of voting-age Americans was actually registered to vote

More recent initiatives further restrict the right to vote. These include the requirement that voters produce identification, and reduction of the numbers of polling booths.  

In recent months the US has also witnessed restrictions on the right of peaceable assembly.  Unidentified but presumably federal forces descended on Portland, Oregon in the summer of 2020 and arrested peaceful protesters, taking them to unknown locations.

The Portland arrests seem to be a violation of the 2010 UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The Convention defines enforced disappearance as “arrest…by agents of the State …followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”  But the US has not ratified this Convention.  

President Trump also undermines the rule of law in other ways. He routinely dismisses law enforcement officers with whose decisions he disagrees. He pardons convicted criminals who are or were his cronies. He does not criticize heavily armed police forces that attack unarmed protesters or murder unarmed citizens.

And President Trump calls journalists enemies of the people. So far, he has not actually been able to eliminate freedom of the press, which is a bedrock right in any democracy.

These recent attacks on civil and political rights have led many observers to wonder if the future of the US lies in fascism. The parallels with Nazi Germany are not exact, but are very worrisome. Just as the rich and powerful in 1930s Germany deferred to Adolf Hitler, so many Republicans who should know better have supported President Trump’s attacks on civil and political rights. 

The US was once respected worldwide for its defense of civil and political rights. Yet it is now a country where such basic human rights are under attack.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Meantime, the US has never supported the international law of economic and social rights. It has never ratified the ICESCR. Thus under international law, it is not obliged to protect human rights to health care, housing, social security, or an adequate standard of living.

Yet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed some of these rights as early as 1944. He proclaimed a second Bill of Rights. This second Bill included rights to a useful and remunerative job, a decent home, adequate medical care, a good education, and adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.

When Senator Bernie Sanders claims that “health is a human right,” he is agreeing both with President Roosevelt and with international human rights law, but not with US law. The US is one of the few developed Western countries where citizens do not enjoy universal, tax-supported access to health care.

The US is also one of the most unequal developed Western countries. Tax cuts for the rich intensify that inequality. So does denial of health care to the poor, extremely unequal educational systems from the primary to the university levels, and inadequate social welfare. 

There is no human right in international law to economic equality. Yet scholars and activists know that the more unequal a society is, the less likely that those at the bottom will enjoy not only their economic and social rights, but also their civil and political rights.

It is difficult to take part in the deliberative political process, for example, is you are working three minimum-wage jobs to support your family. Or if you are sick with Covid-19 and can’t afford medical treatment.

Collective Rights

Aside from the rights mentioned in the ICCPR and ICESCR, collective rights are emerging in international human rights law. Collective rights include the right to peace, the right to development, and the right to a clean and healthy environment.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for US President, acknowledges climate change and its threats to the environment. President Trump and the Republican Party do not.

Unalienable Rights

Recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made public the Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights. This report mentioned two foremost unalienable rights: religious liberty and property rights.

Religious liberty is not threatened in the US, although some religious people may believe that they should be free to discriminate in their businesses against LGBT+ people. President Trump's early attempt to impose a so-called “Muslim ban” on immigrants, later modified to ban immigrants from certain Muslim majority countries, did threaten the freedom of religion of prospective immigrants.

As with freedom of religion, no one threatens Americans’ property rights. Even people whom some members of the political right consider to be extreme leftists, if not “communists,” do not do so.

Social Democracy

Left-wing politicians in the US such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are social democrats, not communists. Social democracy is a variant of liberalism that views the social provision of economic security as an inherent part of respect for the individual. It is not communism.

Social democracy protects civil and political rights, which communism routinely violates. It preserves a market-based economic system and protects private property, which communism destroys.

But social democrats also try to protect citizens against detrimental market forces and extreme inequality. Contemporary social democrats also worry about collective rights, especially the right to be protected against climate change.

In other Western states, social democracy is a normal part of politics. It is not considered to be an extreme leftist position.

The left wing of the Democratic Party is comprised of social democrats, or what Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez call democratic socialists. It is the political group most willing to protect the entire range of internationally-recognized human rights in the US.


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