Exceptional No More
(Hamburg, Germany) Human rights received only a brief mention -- by Governor Romney -- in the presidential debate on foreign policy, despite having often been claimed a top international priority. But in fact, the Obama administration's human rights policies deserve careful scrutiny and discussion.
America has been exceptional in the family of nations for prioritizing civil and political human rights over social and economic rights. But over the past four years, America's human-rights engagement has ceased to be exceptional in this regard, as the country's policies and actions have moved into the mainstream of the international community, where all human rights are seen as equal.
During the Cold War, when human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were codified into international legal covenants, the United States resisted efforts by totalitarian countries to diminish the importance of political freedom by the claim that their centralized state social services honored human rights. US diplomats have generally termed "social rights" as goals that states should aim for following democratic decisions, and that social rights were not judiciable in the same way as civil and political rights, and thus not the proper focus of a legally-binding treaty.
Particularly since the end of the Cold War, international institutions and nongovernmental organizations have increasingly promoted social and economic rights, leading to the dilution of attention to the most egregious abuses by dictators. But America still staunchly and often stridently defended those seeking political freedom. American presidents have made it a point to meet with and voice support for dissidents against oppressive regimes.
Of course, like all members of the international community, the United States sometimes violates its international human-rights obligations and downplays violations by its strategic partners. America has traditionally spoken out loudly and proudly -- some would say arrogantly -- on human rights, and, as a superpower, is thus often blamed for not stopping human rights problems in diverse foreign countries, as well as for being hypocritical about its own. But on the sanctity of individual human rights, the position of the United States was always clear.
Today, however, America's position is no longer clear, and is instead ambivalent about the priority of individual liberties, as are most other liberal democracies. The administration has not led the international community in the defense of liberties in such places as Egypt, Russia, China, Iran, or Syria as strongly as many people of those societies hoped and expected. At the same time, in both rhetoric and action, the U.S. has moved toward a broader definition of human rights.
The policy was clearly articulated in August 2009 by Secretary of State Clinton, who said it was "important to look at human rights more broadly than it has been defined. Human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant. It's a much broader agenda. Too often it has gotten narrowed to our detriment." The statement was a boon to illiberal states that want economic development without human freedom and rely on an inflated definition of human rights to deflect criticism of their repressive measures.
To the disappointment of many activists, the United States under President Obama has not, in the event, moved to ratify the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which was signed by President Carter. But during the Universal Periodic Review of America's human rights compliance by the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, the Administration stated that the Affordable Care Act and other social legislation complied with the treaty, and granted that various social problems in the country showed that human rights were being violated. At one point, when asked pointedly if the US would ratify the social and economic rights treaty, American officials replied that the U.S. had a general policy of not ratifying treaties with which it could not fully comply -- clearly hinting of future ratification.
Another aspect of America's exceptionalism on human rights has been its refusal to ratify human-rights treaties that many fear might infringe on the fundamental rights and freedoms of American citizens, a record that is unique in the international community. American politicians and citizens clearly do not think signing international treaties guarantees human rights, which is self-evident, and it is claimed that U.S. human-rights protections are stronger than those in UN treaties.
In the meantime, the UN human rights treaty system has doubled in size since 2004. While the United States has traditionally put a damper on treaty and bureaucracy-proliferation, the Obama administration has taken a much more conventional stance by moving toward ratification of additional UN treaties and promoting the role of the UN in defending human rights. This has resulted in questionable compromises such as the ones reached with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on free speech, which members of the latter see as recognition of their grievances when it comes to criticism of religion.
From an international public-relations point of view, the Obama administration has been correct that "American exceptionalism" is a misleading term that suggests a sense of superiority over other states and resulting license not to play by the rules. But there is one area where the administration's record has indeed been exceptional in this negative sense -- an unprecedented spate of assassinations of suspected terrorists, including US citizens, by drones with no due process. Such killings are highly questionable under international law when they occur outside clear conflict zones and cause disproportionate harm to civilians.
Objections from the international human-rights community to the drone killings and to the walk-back on defending individual rights have been muted to nonexistent. But the loss of American exceptionalism on human-rights priorities poses a threat to all who seek freedom in a world increasingly inconsiderate of its blessings.
Aaron Rhodes is a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project (www.freedomrights.info). He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007, and helped found the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in 2008.