Human Rights 2016: Where We Are and How We Got Here
During the first two presidential nominee debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the term “human rights” was never mentioned. Sure, “rights” was mentioned by Trump in terms of gun ownership and by Hillary regarding the protection of women, voters and young men who live in neighborhoods with stop-and-frisk policing policies. But apart from these few isolated mentions of “rights,” the explicit discussion of the entitlements of all individuals beneath “human rights” was notably absent from the most-watched debates in history thus far.
If this election cycle has been so characterized by popular conversation about rights—including women’s rights, religious rights, Black Americans’ rights, migrant rights– then how did two ninety-minute debates with over 80 million viewers each go by without a single mention of “human rights”?
On April 15, in reference to the 2016 Election, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, addressed a crowd in Cleveland stating, “It is my deepest hope that the people of this country will demonstrate their profound understanding of human dignity and human rights.” Why are “human rights” at the center of international conversation surrounding the US election, but within domestic discourse, they are rarely mentioned, if at all?
Human rights rhetoric has been implemented in inconsistent and often contradictory ways throughout American political history. In the early years after World War II, the United States was an active proponent of creating an international human rights system. The US helped lead the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed in 1948 as one of the backbone documents of the then-recently formed United Nations. However, despite the US’s early involvement in the creation and wording of international rights rhetoric, its implementation was scarce throughout the Cold War and Jim Crow eras. Rights rhetoric re-emerged in American political conversation with Jimmy Carter, though with an international, rather than domestic focus, beginning with his 1977 inaugural address. Carter’s public commitment to an outwards-looking, rights-driven foreign policy and utilization of rights rhetoric was short lived though, given his successor, Ronald Reagan’s subsequent abandonment of a human rights-centric political approach.
Since the Carter years, the US’s commitment to the human rights system has been half-baked at best. The US is yet to ratify several treaties that would hold the US to higher standards at home, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Unsurprisingly, American exceptionalism has by and large been the leading doctrine against the human rights system that the US itself helped create.
Now in 2016, after several tumultuous years both at home and abroad, how can and should human rights rhetoric become relevant in domestic political conversation once more?
In a moment where #BlackLivesMatter criticizes the term “#AllLivesMatter,” it is hard to justify why “human rights” is not guilty of the same dilution and defocusing of conversation away from the specific demographics of people suffering from rights abuses. Certainly there is a need to boldly acknowledge the specific communities at stake, but perhaps in a moment where American politics seems so harshly divided, a universal term could also aid in unifying a broken public.
While certain bystanders may feel shame, guilt or indignation towards community-specific rights dialogue, “human rights” minimizes opportunities for disengagement. When all parties are brought together as mutual stakeholders in a “human rights” issue, there is little space for actors to distance themselves from atrocities to claim, “No, that’s their problem, not ours.” Further, recognizing certain issues as human rights concerns rather than political differences may do important work in establishing an urgency to act.
Acknowledging domestic human rights issues by name is by no means a complete solution to all of our nation’s problems. There is an important distinction between rhetoric and realities. While one is simply words, the other dictates action. However, perhaps embracing the rhetoric could in fact be the missing step in precipitating meaningful action. Whether discussing protecting refugees, ending mass incarceration, improving immigrant detainee systems, ensuring police accountability, or holding uncharged men in Guantanamo in the name of national security, the 2016 candidates have something to gain from confirming a commitment to human rights: a nonpartisan embrace of national flaws.
Maybe what we need as a nation in order to discuss our faults more openly and pursue more meaningful policy is a little less talk about losing emails and a little more about finding a vocabulary for human rights.