New Activist Network Slams Growing Abuses Under Bush
by Jim Lobe
December 11, 2003

Key U.S. civil liberties and social justice groups marked International Human Rights Day Wednesday by launching a new "US Human Rights Network" dedicated to raising awareness about international human rights standards and focusing attention on the US failure to enforce them.

More than 50 groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), said they had agreed to join forces to address what they said was "the alarming rate of human rights violations in the US" particularly as it pursues its "war on terrorism."

They called for US citizens to speak out against these abuses, as well as to fight "US exceptionalism" the view pushed strongly by the administration of President George W. Bush, that the United States should not be constrained by international law or human rights standards, especially relating to economic and social rights.

"The demonstrations that we are currently seeing against the U.S. around the world are a reaction to the perception that the US – and particularly the Bush administration – thinks that it is above international law – laws the rest of the world are required to abide by," said Ajamu Baraka, who works for Amnesty International USA's (AIUSA) Atlanta office and is part of the network's secretariat.

"The rights of ordinary Americans and others residing in the US are being trampled on a daily basis – in violation of a host of international laws and standards," said Cathy Albisa, a secretariat member who is based at CESR.

"These include the right to economic security and a decent standard of living, the right of children convicted of crimes not to be executed, the right to a fair trial, the right to seek asylum, and the right to be free from torture and cruel and inhuman treatment, among any others," she added, noting that the US has the developed world's highest child poverty rate and that 20 percent of adults are functionally illiterate.

The network, which has been several years in the making, marks its birth from a meeting last year at Howard University in Washington, DC on the subject of "Ending Exceptionalism: Strengthening Human Rights in the United States."

Most of the network's founding organizations – which include advocacy groups for immigrants, ethnic minorities, welfare recipients, the disabled, prison rights, among others – took part in the conference, organizing themselves into specific caucuses regarding such issues as the death penalty, discrimination and sovereignty.

Among the best-known groups are the ACLU, the American Friends Service Committee, AIUSA, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Indian Law Resource Center, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People Defense Education Fund.

The network is to be guided by six "core principles" including acceptance that all rights enumerated in the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights are interdependent and universal; that they include economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights, as well civil and political rights that are generally given more recognition in the U.S.; and that rights are most effectively protected through building social movements whose leadership should be accountable to those who are most directly affected by their work.

These principles challenge the work of a number of major U.S.-based human rights groups, many of which have historically been dominated by professional elites and have generally ignored ESC rights, in part because of their failure to accept the Universal Declaration and international human rights law as a sufficient juridical basis for their work. They have tended instead to rely on the rights provided under the US Constitution.

In recent years, however, US courts – even the Supreme Court – have increasingly cited international human rights standards in their decisions regarding, for example, the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded, women's rights, and the accountability of US companies for wrongful conduct overseas.

Many of the network groups have been pushing courts in this direction. "The ACLU decided several years ago to integrate more international principles in our work," said Gregory Nojeim, a staff attorney who represents the ACLU in the network.

"A lot of groups that have traditionally focused on political and civil rights have expanded their mandates," said Albisa, who cited both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, which has produced a number of reports on cases where civil and political rights have intersected with ESR rights, such as the impact of practices by multinational corporations on local communities.

"There's a growing recognition that you cannot separate economic rights from political and civil liberties," she added, noting that groups that have tried to use international law to broaden the panoply of rights recognized in the US have until now been fragmented.

"We are pulling together in a way that can build movements," she said. The network's launch is the first step.

Both the inclusion of ESC rights into the broader human rights pantheon and the use of international human rights law by US courts are anathema to the Bush administration and key policy-makers, about two dozen of whom are members of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy, a legal association whose recent national convention here featured half a dozen major presentations on the dangers allegedly posed to US national sovereignty by international human rights standards that have not been ratified by the US government.

Among others, the Society was addressed by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte, and the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, who argued that the International Criminal Court (ICC) represented a particularly grave threat to US sovereignty and that Washington obtained all the legitimacy it needed in invading Iraq by following its own Constitutional processes rather than deferring to the UN Security Council.

This kind of "exceptionalism" is precisely what the network is trying to organize against, however.

"As the US indulges an increasingly unilateralist bent in both domestic and foreign policy, the cost to rights at home and abroad is growing," said Baraka, who noted the rise in racial profiling, the summary detention and deportation of Muslim immigrants after Sept. 11, 2001, and the indefinite detention as "illegal combatants" at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of hundreds of foreigners seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere as examples.

The international human rights framework, including ESC rights, he said, remains underutilized in the US "due in large part to a deliberate, long-standing effort by the US government to deny human rights laws and standards when it applies to situations internal to the US and to US actions around the world."

Washington's exceptionalist policy has been most vividly on display in the administration's refusal to request ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); its renunciation of the ICC treaty; its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty; its walkout at the World Conference Against Racism; and its failure to adhere to the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war, according to the network.

(Inter Press Service)

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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