The United States: a world leader in human rights?

By Dr Andrew Fagan

On Thursday 20 June 2018, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced that the US was taking the unprecedented move of formally withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).  America’s two most senior diplomats sought to justify the not-unexpected decision by graphically depicting the UN’s foremost human rights body as entirely unfit for purpose. They explained that despite the US’s concerted attempts to reform the body, the work of the UNHRC was irreparably compromised by the presence of several human rights-violating Member States on the Council. Haley denounced the Council as “a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” She then proceeded to argue that the US was compelled to withdraw from the foremost UN human rights body precisely because of what she presented as the US’s unequivocal support for human rights. In another communication, Haley declared that the US would remain a “world leader” in the continuing fight for human rights. She stopped short of evoking the Scriptural “city on the hill” symbolism which often accompanies the US’s self-identification as the global moral super-power, but her message was clear enough: true defenders of human rights must not continue to support the UNHRC and should join the US in taking such a politically “courageous” move.

Whatever the motivations for Ambassador Haley’s depiction of the US as a world leader in the fight for human rights, its timing was poor. Setting to one side the long-standing and repeatedly xenophobic pronouncements of the current US President, the announcement of the US’s withdrawal from the UNHRC coincided with World Refugee Day and the globally-transmitted sights and sounds of children and infants who had been forcibly separated from their migrant and asylum-seeking parents caught fleeing destitution and persecution. In contrast to the cries of children detained in US make-shift facilities, a less starkly emotive correction to the claim that the US is the world’s foremost and most resolute defender of human rights came the following day with the publication of a truly remarkable UN report on poverty in the US, produced by Philip Alston, an internationally-renowned human rights scholar and the current UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

The US is well-known for its long-standing rejection of social rights as human rights and has consistently refused to ratify and implement the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In light of this, Alston’s analysis carefully focuses upon the effects which severe poverty has upon its victims’ enjoyment of the civil and political rights afforded them under the US Constitution and its international legal obligations. The account which Alston’s report provides is truly shocking and offers a stark corrective to Ambassador Haley’s estimation of the US’s commitment to human rights, whilst also fundamentally exposing the profoundly limited understanding of human rights she draws upon.

In the world’s wealthiest country, at least 40 million Americans live in poverty. The US is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world and ranks 35th out of the 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in respect of poverty and inequality. US infant mortality rates are the highest in the developed world, as is the rate of obesity amongst the adult population. The youth poverty rate is the highest within the OECD and the US ranks 36th out of 37 for access to water and sanitation. Tropical diseases and parasites such as Zika and hookworm are increasingly prevalent in some areas of the Southern United States. To quote Alston directly, “the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation.” While Alston’s report provides damning evidence of the systematic denial of fundamental social rights, his analysis proceeds to show just how damaging such extensive poverty is to US democracy and the resulting civil and political rights violations which the poor are particularly vulnerable to.

In addition to all of the other evidence which could be levelled against Nikki Haley’s depiction of the US’s commitment to human rights, Alston’s report shines a light upon the extent to which the US fails to respect the fundamental human rights of many millions of its own citizens. For what it’s worth, Haley condemned Alston’s report as “misleading and politically motivated” and proceeded to assert that “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”

Haley’s overt appeal to human rights was out of step with many previous US administration officials, for whom “democracy” and the “free market” typically occupy centre-stage of US foreign policy. A genuine appeal to human rights, as most informed human rights defenders will confirm, requires very much more than the very limited and formal understanding of ‘democracy’ which prevails in many quarters of the US.  In respect of the necessity of social rights, for any sufficiently robust human rights-based approach, it also requires the kind of state welfare provision which this administration is systematically destroying, as Alston’s report bleakly illustrates. This administration’s strategy of denouncing conflicting perspectives as politically biased and motivated, whilst disturbingly anti-democratic in many ways, does nothing to address the suffering of so many suffering American citizens. By overtly laying claim to the title of world leader in human rights (rather than democracy and the free market), Haley is exposing the US administration to a set of evaluative criteria, which it cannot satisfy whilst simultaneously displaying the diplomatic naivety of this administration and many of its most senior officials.

No genuine supporter of human rights can reasonably deny that the UN human rights system is deeply flawed and in urgent need of reform. However, on occasion, the system produces something of real value and worth. In this respect, Alston’s remarkable report stands in stark contrast to Haley’s utterly simplistic dismissal of the UN human rights system, whilst also fundamentally undermining the US’s claim to be a resolute and courageous defender of human rights. The US has a very long road to travel before it can legitimately begin to proudly laud its own human rights credentials and if it wishes to live up to its own principles, that road needs to begin amongst its own “poor huddled masses” and its own deeply limited understanding of what human rights genuinely are.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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