Human Rights

T. Christopher Jespersen

Since its inception as an independent nation, the United States has claimed a special relationship with the issue of human rights. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he capturedβ€”as well as spoke toβ€”the yearnings of the colonists along the eastern seaboard of North America to break free from tyrannical rule across the Atlantic Ocean. Theirs was a collective action, of a people striving to achieve the right to determine their own form of government, but Jefferson's rhetoric struck a balance between those collective aspirations and the rights of individuals. It is worth noting that his most famous words on the subject of individual rightsβ€”"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"β€”are preceded by the collective right of "one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another." Since 1776, Jefferson's sentiments as both an expression of collective as well as individual human rights have continued to draw the attention of peoples around the globe. Although Jefferson was primarily concerned with focusing on the specific grievances and complaints the colonists had against the British king George III, his language gave expression to larger sentiments, coming partly from the Enlightenment philosophy that had recently swept the Western world. As a result, his words seemed transcendent in thought, though they were not necessarily so in their application.

Indeed, there was one major problem with what Jefferson wrote. The nature of his insistence on the collective right of peoples to determine their own form of government, not to mention the right to pursue happiness as individuals, when juxtaposed with his ownership of slaves and his subsequent refusal to disavow the practice by releasing them, draws attention to the danger of assessing the United States' stand on human rights by national rhetoric alone. Or as David D. Newsom expressed it more recently, "United States diplomacy in the human rights field suffers inevitably from the contradictions between promise and fulfillment." Ever since 1776, America's diplomatic policymakers have spoken to the issue of human rights in both the collective and individual manifestations, and no one more eloquently than Thomas Jefferson. But as Newsom warned, the actual implementation of policies designed to address those concerns have not always lived up to their high-sounding intentions.

A major surprise occurred 225 years after Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, when the United States failed to retain its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Coming in fourth in the voting in May 2001, behind France, Austria, and Sweden, the United States missed out because only three spots were available. Representatives from forty-three countries had pledged to Secretary of State Colin Powell prior to the vote that they would cast their ballots for the United States, more than enough for the United States to keep its place. But when the results were tabulated, it became clear that fourteen of them had not done as promised, leaving the United States off the commission for the first time since its creation in 1947.

At first glance, the removal of the United States, while Sudan, Libya, and China kept their seats because of the geographical division of placings, seemed almost Orwellian. That the land of Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and James Earl Carter, to name only four of the nation's most ardent and eloquent proponents of human rights, was excluded from the panel, while on it sat clear violators of their own people's rights like Sudan, where slavery still exists and where religious persecution and civil war have raged for decades, Libya, where dictator Muammar Qaddafi has ruled for decades through brutality against his own people and whose support of terrorism has been documented on a number of occasions, and China, where the government massacred protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and where the persecution of groups like Falun Gong continued a decade later despite international pressure, appeared to make a mockery of the whole notion of a commission dedicated to monitoring and improving human rights conditions around the world.

In the aftermath of the vote that removed the United States, columnists and political pundits in Washington called the act outrageous, and cartoonists had a field day with images of Libya, Sudan, and China setting the human rights agenda. The consensus seemed to be that the United States had been wronged and that the nation's absence from the commission ridiculed the entire notion of promoting human rights. But the long history of America's relationship with human rights displays a series of domestic and international contradictions between the policies pursued and the rhetoric espoused by administration after administration. Considered in total, these contradictions raise serious questions about the nation's commitment to the very idea of human rights. In short, Newsom is right: the gap between ideal and practice has been substantial, and upon closer scrutiny, the American record on human rights has been far more ambiguous, less consistent, and marked by more blemishes than jingoistic boosters of national honor would like to admit.


Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977–1981. New York, 1983.

Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York, 1982. The most vocal president on human rights in the nation's history discusses his reasons for making it so important to his administration's diplomacy.

Chomsky, Noam. Deterring Democracy. New York, 1991. Essential for understanding the duplicitous language employed by policy-makers to rationalize actions.

Forsythe, David P. Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Congress Reconsidered. Gainesville, Fla., 1988. A very good discussion of Congress's assertiveness after 1973.

β€”β€”. "Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect." Political Science Quarterly 105 (autumn 1990): 435–454. One of his many excellent writings on the topic, this one being especially useful as a summary.

Fukuyama, Francis. "Natural Rights and Human History." The National Interest 64 (summer 2001): 19–30.

Kirkpatrick, Jeane. "Dictatorships and Double Standards." Commentary 68 (November 1979): 34–45. The classic criticism of the Carter administration's policies.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York, 1977.

Krenn, Michael L. "'Unfinished Business': Segregation and U.S. Diplomacy at the 1958 World's Fair." Diplomatic History 20 (fall 1996): 591–612.

Lapham, Lewis. "The American Rome: On the Theory of Virtuous Empire." Harper's Magazine (August 2001). A biting analysis of the hypocrisy in American diplomacy and human rights.

Mower, A. Glenn, Jr. The United States, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Eleanor Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter Eras. Westport, Conn., 1979.

β€”β€”. Human Rights and American Foreign Policy: The Carter and Reagan Experiences. New York, 1987.

Newsom, David D., ed. The Diplomacy of Human Rights. Lanham, Md., 1986. Good collection of articles that covers a wide range of topics relating to the subject.

Schmitz, David F. Thank God They're on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921–1965. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999. A chilling reminder of how stability has usually trumped human rights in, among other things, considering what governments to support.

Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. New York, 1986. A helpful and succinct overview of the Carter administration, including its emphasis on human rights.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A ringing and eloquent endorsement of the benefits provided by America's efforts to promote democracy, but best if read in conjunction with Schmitz.

Vance, Cyrus R. Hard Choices: Critical Years in America's Foreign Policy. New York, 1983.

Vincent, R. J., ed. Foreign Policy and Human Rights: Issues and Responses. Cambridge, 1986.

See also Foreign Aid ; Humanitarian Intervention and Relief ; Most-Favored-Nation Principle ; Recognition .

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