Why International Human Rights Matter in the United States

Jullia Park
November 7, 2013

The following post by Jullia Park ’14 is from the new International Human Rights Clinic blog:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These famous words of Martin Luther King were repeated in the University of Chicago Law School classroom on October 30. On this day, Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program, spoke to students, academics, and experts on the importance of international human rights in the United States.

Jamil gave a number of reasons for why the US should promote international human rights domestically. He explained that US law is often inadequate in protecting people’s rights. For instance, to prevail on a discrimination case under US law, one must prove actual intent to discriminate. Under international human rights law, on the other hand, a showing of a disparate impact on a legal class (e.g. females, the disabled) is all that is necessary to make a discrimination claim, regardless of intent. A violation of human rights is often easier to establish under international human rights law than under US law. Evidently, international treaties are more holistic and more embracing of the “no person left behind” concept.

Jamil went on to explain that despite these justifications, international human rights is perceived as a foreign concept in the United States. I found this to be the most striking part about Jamil’s talk, as I had once been guilty of carrying this perception. Before beginning my studies at the University of Chicago Law School, and specifically the school’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHR Clinic), I associated international human rights with human trafficking in North Korea and terrorism in the Middle East. It never struck my mind that international human rights was an issue directly concerning the US. I am sure other Americans can relate.

While co-authoring a report for the IHR Clinic on the shackling of pregnant inmates in the US, however, I came to realize that international human rights violations are a prevalent, yet often ignored, problem in the US. In light of this, I find it quite hypocritical of US institutions to criticize and instruct other nations on how to handle human rights issues. As Jamil pointed out, what impact can the US make on international human rights if we cannot even ratify basic treaties, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? By exempting itself from international human rights norms, our country sets a bad example for other nations.

Jamil also made the point that many civil and political rights issues in the US are also human rights issues. Solitary confinement, for example, is not just a civil rights issue, but also a human rights one. As a result of this interconnectedness, Jamil suggests that in addressing social, political, and civil rights issues, the US government and public also focus on the human rights violations that follow. Various groups are increasingly recognizing the intersection of human rights and other issues in the US and are joining forces with the ACLU to educate, engage, and raise awareness of the importance of international human rights in the country. By doing so, Jamil hopes that the US will affirm its role as a global leader in the international human rights arena and ensure protection of human rights at home.