Human Rights Day

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Where does the U.S. stand on human rights? While we can point to improvements in some areas, rights are too often ignored or attacked by the politicians we have elected to govern our country.

During our recent unenlightening political campaign, the most important human rights issue of our time was never seriously mentioned: global warming and climate change.

At the climate change talks taking place in Doha, Qatar, as I write, the U.S. leads other industrialized countries in refusing to commit to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Unless serious action is taken immediately, we face a future of greater food scarcity, climate refugees and wars for the dwindling resources necessary to sustain life. (See also Tom McDonald’s Editor’s Note of Dec. 3.)

There are many other human rights issues which should attract our attention. The Senate this week voted against ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, even though that document was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990.

Both the House and most recently the Senate have passed the National Defense Authorization Act. That legislation continues to prevent the transfer of any of the 166 prisoners remaining at Guantánamo Bay prison to the U.S., where they could be tried in federal court, and places restrictions on the transfer of any prisoner to another country, even if no charges are filed against him. Thus they face either indefinite detention or military trials that do not meet our own or international standards of fairness.

One could go on to consider other violations of human rights often in the news. These include drone attacks killing many innocent civilians in several countries, a list of U.S. citizens and others who may be killed without due process, and the two-year detention of Bradley Manning under conditions which many consider to be a form of torture.

Our appreciation of the range of human rights is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated in 1948 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt. In the U.S. at this time we have no leader of her stature to impel us to follow our better instincts. But we can still be inspired to individual and collective action by her words of 1958: “Where, after all, do universal rights begin? … Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the large world.”

Robert E. Pearson
Amnesty International USA
Legislative Coordinator, New Mexico