Time to Ratify UN Human Rights Covenant

THE National Council of Churches recently initiated a campaign seeking US ratification of basic human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (collectively known as the International Covenants on Human Rights). Although the US voted for United Nations adoption of these treaties in 1966 and signed them in 1976, they have languished before the Senate for 10 years. The question the National Council poses is: Why has the US, a country with a strong human rights record, failed to ratify these covenants? The answer to this question lies in part in how the US approaches its own human rights problems. Every country can improve its human rights record. The US is no exception. To this end, the US has developed extensive machinery for the promotion and protection of the rights espoused by these covenants. As a result, the most vocal and disparaging domestic critics of US civil and political rights practices generally concern themselves with improving this existing domestic machinery, rather than persuading their government to participate elsewhere. In short, because of the availability of redress on the national level, US citizens have not found it necessary to lobby the Senate for ratification of the covenants which provide international reinforcement for domestic efforts.

In fact, the persons who would most benefit from more US participation in the UN's human rights protection system are victims of human rights violations in other countries. By not ratifying the covenants, the US denies itself a forum in which to raise the plight of those who suffer under repressive regimes. Within those forums in which the US does participate - such as the Helsinki process - every time the US government is called upon to explain why the Senate has not acted on the covenants, it is forced to take time and attention from other human rights issues.

Some have explained US failure to ratify the covenants by pointing to the Soviet Union and other countries with respect to their UN commitments. For example, at the very time the International Covenants were submitted to the Senate for advice and consent in 1978, the Soviet Union was engaged in a sweeping crackdown on human rights activists. A year later it invaded Afghanistan. Poland declared martial law in 1981 in stark contradiction to the very object and purpose of these pacts. Romania's house arrest of its own human rights rapporteur speaks for itself.

Obviously much has changed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since 1978. The Soviet Union has now taken steps to clean up its human rights record and has attempted to fill the void left in the UN by the limited participation of the US. Gorbachev has supported UN peace initiatives in several regions of the world and took the lead in calling for submitting human rights disputes to the International Court of Justice. Hungary, the first Warsaw Pact country to openly criticize the human rights policies of a fraternal ally, has moved to use a UN forum to investigate Romania's treatment of ethnic Hungarians. Against this backdrop of increasingly credible East bloc participation in the UN's human rights process, the US is all the more conspicuous by its absence.

International human rights law is a new and promising way to promote foreign policy goals. A vacuum left by the US will surely be filled by others. Indeed, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are not the only countries able and willing to shape international human rights norms. All the permanent members of the UN Security Council have ratified these treaties - except the US. Among the 35 Helsinki-process countries eligible to become a party to these treaties - including the 16 members of NATO - only Ireland, Turkey, and the US have not.

Will it take over 40 years to get the covenants ratified, as did the Genocide Convention? Not if action is taken in three quarters.

First, the American human rights community must make a concerted call for ratification. The same groups that lobby Congress on human rights in other parts of the world must understand that our overall efforts to achieve their goals are hampered by our failure to ratify these covenants. While most nongovernmental organizations concerned with global and regional human rights abuses support ratification, they have failed to take the lead in calling for the Senate to act.

Second, the Senate must act. Beginning with new hearings, the Senate should quickly give its advice and consent to the president.

Finally, the administration must stop fence sitting and state its support of the covenants. For eight years the Reagan administration claimed to have the covenants ``under review,'' and thus avoided taking any position at all. Sadly, the current administration announced last May that it, too, has no opinion and is continuing this length ``review'' process.

Morris Abram, the US ambassador to the most recent Helsinki-process human rights meeting, answered our critics by noting that other countries ``have signed these documents but are unwilling to live up to them; the United States, on the other hand, has failed to ratify them, but observes their terms. Which is more important?'' If forced to choose, the clear answer to the ambassador's question is that observance of these standards is more important than ratification.

But it is equally clear that we do not have to choose; we can do both. There is no reason why the Eastern countries should not be called upon to observe the standards they have openly and formally accepted; and there is no reason why the United States should not openly and formally accept the standards we claim to observe. By doing the latter, the US can enhance its position to do the former.

In the most recent agreement of the 35 countries participating in the Helsinki-process, the US committed itself to ``consider acceding to the [International Covenants on Human Rights].'' Our failure to abide by this promise will make our calls to other countries to live by theirs ring hollow.

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