Human Rights - America's record at home

In 2001, Francis Fukuyama wrote about the debate between "rights" and "interests" and what difference it makes to speak of "human rights" as opposed to "human interests." More specifically, he delved into why certain groups assert claims to rights when what they are really discussing are interests. In a sense, this is merely a broadening of what Jefferson began when he wrote of the "right" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The United Nations declaration is about "universal human rights," not human interests, and after incisively noting the distinction between the two, Fukuyama concluded that the reason for the proliferating assertions of "rights" in the half century after the UN's declaration had to do with how "rights trump interests because they are invested with greater moral significance." The problem with injecting human rights issues into the nation's diplomacy, he insisted, was that they set up a basic premise for the nation's diplomacy that could never really be fulfilled: "A country that makes human rights a significant element of its foreign policy tends toward ineffectual moralizing at best, and unconstrained violence in pursuit of moral aims at worst." Jimmy Carter seemed to have discovered that the hard way.

On another level, Americans still fail to understand how arrogant some of their national pronouncements on human rights seem to peoples in other countries. While condemning human rights infractions elsewhere, Americans blithely go about ignoring or rationalizing their own society's violations. To cite one example, polls generally show that a vast majority of Americans consider the death penalty a domestic matter, and popular support for allowing states to execute prisoners convicted of certain crimes remains high, although revelations in the late 1990s and early 2000s demonstrated the inconsistent, indeed arbitrary, way in which the death penalty is frequently applied, not to mention the fact that a good number of death-row inmates had recently been proven innocent through DNA testing. The governor of Illinois went so far as to suspend all executions pending a review of the state's legal system regarding capital cases. Nongovernmental organizations that monitor human rights abuses around the world, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, regularly cite the use of the death penalty as a violation of human rights, and the United States receives special mention since some of its states also allow for individuals under the age of eighteen to receive the death penalty for certain crimes. That puts the United States in the same league as Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, nations not normally listed as standing at the forefront of the world's human rights protectors. And it gets even worse. In 2001, 52 percent of all death-row inmates were African American or Latino, far in excess of their percentage of the general population, which in 2000 stood at 24.8 percent, suggesting a disparity based on racial and ethnic prejudice. Yet the Supreme Court has ruled that statistical findings of uneven sentencing across racial lines regarding capital cases do not constitute sufficient evidence of racial bias. An intent to discriminate must be proven in each case, the court ruled, a nearly impossible burden for defendants appealing their convictions. The United States signed the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but by 2001 had not ratified it, largely because of objections to the covenant's prohibition against using the death penalty on individuals under the age of eighteen.

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