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Time for an American examination of conscience

Among Americans, as Marist Fr. Ted Keating notes in our cover story, there is a tendency toward “exceptionalism” on human rights. Because the language of human rights is so bound up with our national mythology -- America as the cradle of democracy, the land of the free -- it is difficult for us to be self-critical. Human rights may be an issue in Bosnia or Rwanda or Guatemala, Americans tend to assume, but not here.

Even with respect to civil liberties, this isn’t always the case. A recent Amnesty International report on human rights in the United States found serious concerns: systematic abuse of prisoners, for example, and the expanding use of the death penalty.

Yet, as Keating points out, it’s in the arena of social and economic rights that we’re most out of step with the rest of the world -- and as Catholics, out of step with our own church. For both the United Nations and Pope John Paul II, freedom has as much to do with decent wages and job security and education as it does with the secret ballot.

While Americans are free to choose between Pepsi and Coke, or between Republicans and Democrats, millions are not “free” to enjoy decent housing or adequate health care. By that standard, our record on human rights is not so luminous.

The same point applies internationally. When Vice President Al Gore recently lectured Malaysia on democracy, for example, the impoverished masses of that nation had to be confused about the American commitment to human rights, since our economic policies -- expressed through agencies such as the International Monetary Fund -- would force their government to curtail even rudimentary social protections in the name of “fiscal austerity.”

In other words, we seem to be talking out of both sides of our mouth. We profess deep concern for the political freedom of other people but apparent disregard for their economic freedom. It is a contradiction that puzzles and often angers the rest of the world.

It also strikes others as curious that the United States clamors for human rights while withholding its assent from many of the important international agreements that seek to secure these rights. The United States has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in 1966. We have taken no action on the 1989 protocol on the abolition of the death penalty, have not ratified the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, have not ratified the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and have taken no action on the Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Their Families. We were one of seven nations to vote against the new International Criminal Court, and we have still not signed the treaty against land mines.

The reasons for these omissions are familiar. In part, it’s domestic politics -- conservative forces fear that U.N. agreements are part of a slippery slope leading to one-world government and the triumph of secular humanism. Even more fundamental, however, is superpower arrogance: We don’t want the law to apply to us. Ronald Reagan cheerfully disregarded the World Court when he mined the harbors of Nicaragua, and Bill Clinton is coming from much the same place in opposing the new International Criminal Court on the grounds that U.S. troops or officials might be subject to its jurisdiction.

There are complex issues involved, but for the rest of the world this recalcitrance can lead to only one conclusion -- the United States is not willing to apply to itself the standards it urges on everyone else.

The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, therefore, may be an apt moment for an American examination of conscience. Our mythology is not built on sand -- for 200 years, we really have been a force for freedom. Yet so long as we seem to accept vast poverty as the price of doing business, so long as we exempt ourselves from global human rights standards and mechanisms, we appear to stand in the way of a better world.

That’s not the way the cradle of liberty rocks.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998