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The U.S. Has A Long History of Refusing to Apply Human Rights Standards at Home

On Human Rights Day, a look at human rights abuses — and activism — that are alive and well in the United States.

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This article originally appeared on openDemocracy 5050

American politicians often talk as if human rights were only relevant in other countries, but grassroots organisations are increasingly using the human rights framework to win social and economic rights for the poorest and most marginalised people in the U.S. Cathy Albisa, director of the National Economic and Social Rights Inititative, spoke to Meredith Tax.

Meredith Tax: Looking at the history of human rights in the U.S., why do you think it has taken progressives so long to use the ideas of human rights for social and economic change?

Cathy Albisa: Progressives in the U.S. have used the ideas for centuries, including in the abolitionist movement, but politics intervened after World War II when the formal human rights system was created. With regard to the United States, Carol Anderson spells out this history in her book Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955

People in the Civil Rights Movement recognized they needed a human rights strategy to achieve full equality because civil rights alone, without economic and social rights, would be inadequate. But at the same time, you had forces pushing in the opposite direction. On the international stage, the world was moving from a time of global unity against fascism to the East-West divisions of the Cold War. In this environment, human rights became highly politicized, with the U.S.S.R. claiming economic and social rights and the U.S. claiming political and civil ones. The cruel irony for people in both parts of the world was that the Soviet Union wasn’t adequately delivering social and economic rights and the U.S. wasn’t actually delivering civil and political rights to a substantial portion of its population. But within the U.S., human rights became a political football and anyone who pushed for economic and social rights would be accused of aiding communism and being a traitor. And the Far Right had a very effective strategy of associating labor and human rights with what they described as the communist threat.

This dynamic was evident from the inception of the system. When the UN was first founded and the Charter was being negotiated in San Francisco, both the NAACP and the American Jewish Congress were there to link domestic issues to international human rights. The U.S. government suddenly became concerned that they might be held accountable to this vision they were promoting for the rest of the world, and ensured a sovereignty clause in the UN Charter indicating that the system could not interfere in domestic concerns. Already, the United States saw human rights as a threat domestically.  

Nonetheless, U.S. leadership, in the person of Eleanor Roosevelt, was a key driver of the UHDR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Yet when the NAACP sought to use the international stage to make abuses against African American visible, she threatened to resign from the U.S. delegation to the UN. Eleanor wanted to keep human rights primarily an international vision to avoid political fallout at home. 

MT: But she was being called a communist anyway.

CA: Right. She didn’t want to deal with any more attacks. And the backlash was so intense that conservatives almost succeeded in passing an amendment to the constitution, the Bricker Amendment, that would strip the presidency of power to enter and enforce treaties. It was stopped in the Senate in 1954 but it lost by only one vote. Eisenhower basically had to promise not to enter into and enforce any human rights treaties in order to make the threat go away.