What We Expect From America

U.S. leadership was critical in building the global human-rights agenda from the ground up, beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More than half a century later, that agenda and the movement it inspired are in need of renewed U.S. leadership at every level, from grass-roots activism to government policy and actions, nationally and globally.

The reluctance of the United States to fully embrace the international human-rights system it did so much to establish has weakened efforts to use these tools to promote democracy and social justice in the United States and abroad. This has become an acute concern following the terrorist attacks of September 11 and decisions made by the U.S. government since, such as to hold detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without Geneva Convention hearings; to monitor, detain, and deport immigrants against whom no charges have been made; and to restrict visitors and immigrants alike from many parts of the world.

In lowering its own standards, the United States has, often inadvertently, given other governments an opening to take measures that run against international rights commitments. I saw this firsthand as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Repressive new laws and detention practices were introduced in a number of countries, all broadly justified by U.S. actions and the international war on terrorism. I will never forget how one ambassador put it to me bluntly: “Don't you see, High Commissioner? The standards have changed.”

We must challenge this view and do everything possible to maintain the integrity of international human-rights and humanitarian-law norms in light of heightened security tensions. Yet we must do more. We must also win the war of ideas and make the case that a world of true human security is only possible when the full range of human rights -- civil and political, as well as economic, social, and cultural -- are guaranteed for all people.

This thinking isn't new. In fact, it draws on the best traditions of U.S. leadership, evidenced in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's celebrated 1944 State of the Union address. Those freedoms are spelled out clearly in international human-rights treaties. But succeeding U.S. administrations have rejected the idea that education, health, adequate housing, and food are rights to which citizens are entitled. Some critics contend that these are aspirations, not justiciable rights. Others point to fears that U.S. sovereignty and states' rights would be put at risk by ratifying such agreements. These philosophical and legal issues have long been debated. But far less consideration has been given to how U.S. positions may have weakened efforts to push for greater rights protections abroad, or to how the human- rights vision, legal framework, methods, and strategies could support and strengthen U.S. efforts to promote democracy and social justice today.

I am encouraged by the emergence of a U.S. human-rights movement that seeks to reclaim the full legacy and meaning of international human rights. For example, a growing number of academics at U.S. medical schools and groups such as Physicians for Human Rights are pushing for greater recognition of the right to the highest attainable standard of health for all -- and demonstrating the impact this shift would have on the way decisions are made about health spending and access to health services, especially for the most vulnerable. U.S. development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations increasingly use human-rights conventions as a means of empowering grass-roots civil-society groups to press their governments to take appropriate actions. The U.S. labor movement (through new initiatives such as American Rights at Work) and networks of women- and child-advocacy organizations are recognizing the potential power of the international human-rights agenda and mechanisms.

Reclaiming American traditions that contributed so much to the creation of the international human-rights movement will be an uphill journey. We must begin close to home, while being mindful that each step will have a profound impact on the realization of human rights around the world.

Mary Robinson is former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.