Sign Human Rights Treaties

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THE past year was not a healthy one for United States-United Nations relations. Nor was it a good one for multilateral problem-solving - from the White House handling of Somalia to Congress' negligent refusal to pay our debts to the UN.

The year did end on a relative high note, however, with the creation by the UN of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as advocated by the administration and the human rights community.

More needs to be done. The most sensible and obvious way the US can show support for the UN, and elevate human rights further, is to ratify the five dormant yet important international human rights treaties. And do it soon.

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In these days of tight budgets, with the US facing $1 billion in debt to the UN, ratification is a simple and cost-free way for the US to support UN efforts to promote human rights and democracy.

Three key treaties are unratified: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the American Convention on Human Rights. These date from the 1960s. Along with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, they have languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for more than a decade.

A fifth, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, was negotiated four years ago but never signed by the US. Simply put, these treaties seek to protect basic rights that the US Constitution and American beliefs in democracy and justice are called to defend.

The US is the only major democracy that has not signed the five treaties. Only one lawyer in the State Department is preparing the treaties for Senate action. The quickest path toward ratification is strong leadership from the president. I applaud President Clinton's general support for the treaties and urge him to make ratification a high priority.

Ethnic and nationalist conflicts rage in the post-cold-war world, and ethnic cleansing and mass rape have occurred in systematic fashion. As the US distances itself from participation in peacekeeping operations, it is more important to ratify these treaties and send a strong signal that it is serious about preventing ethnic conflict. At the core of these conflicts is the tension between minority and majority populations, where each, in a new or renewed search for identity, scapegoats the other for its problems and hardships. We must demand respect for minority rights but cannot do so effectively or legally without becoming party to the very documents that seek to attain this goal. Safeguarding human rights is the first step. Shockingly, in this century the number of people killed by their own governments is four times the number killed in cross-border and civil conflicts.

The treaties face opposition; human rights treaties usually do on grounds of constitutional infringement and federal-state separation. These concerns can be addressed by adding ``understandings'' to the ratification or by conforming US law to the conventions. In the case of the Women's Convention this would mean expanding rights for maternity leave, education, military service, and access to health care and prenatal care.

The US Constitution and legal system may be the world's greatest protectors of individual rights. Some argue that this obviates the need for ratification; but the opposite is true. In a world where two-thirds of all possible nations are party to these particular treaties, it's nothing short of embarrassing that the US has not joined them. The US must approve the treaties quickly and reaffirm support for human rights and multilateral cooperation.

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