By admitting its human rights problems, the US helps other nations admit theirs
When the US had its own human rights record reviewed by the UN, the usual repressive regimes took the opportunity to condemn others while glossing over their own abuses. But history shows that human rights reporting can and does advance the cause of human rights worldwide.
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In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo marched every weekend starting in 1977 to insist that military rulers account for their “disappeared” people in accord with the country’s longstanding human rights commitments. They drew international support against the “Dirty War” in which state-sponsored brutality killed thousands, and they persisted until the shamed soldiers returned to their barracks in 1983.Skip to next paragraph
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Examples of demands that governments live up to their human rights rhetoric are legion. They include the US movements for civil rights, women’s rights, Native American, gay liberation and disability rights. Such demands can be unsettling. In 1994, I was denounced in the US Senate by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, for introducing the Clinton administration’s first report to the UN Human Rights Committee. Senator Helms and his allies took issue with my drawing attention to civil rights demands that had been made against the US government for decades, asserting that by doing so I was providing propaganda to America’s enemies.
The US should remain honest in reporting
Honesty should characterize US human rights reporting, not shading the truth. Otherwise, the US loses its diplomatic advantage on human rights. This year I was disappointed that the official US report to the Human Rights Council failed adequately to cover gross human rights violations committed in the “war on terror.” The report recounts President Obama’s commitment to closing the detention center in Guantanamo but makes no reference to past US torture and other abuses there that make closure necessary.
At the Human Rights Council’s general debate in September on “Human Rights Situations that Require the Attention of the Council,” 29 nations hurled charges at one another, including notorious human rights violators like Sudan, Iran, Congo, and Burma (Myanmar), as well as democracies like the US, Austria, and Japan. This exchange, rife with exaggerations and half-truths, can also expose genuine human rights abuses. History shows that stubborn facts cannot long be covered up by rhetoric, and that human rights reporting can advance the cause of human rights worldwide.
John Shattuck is a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, a former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, and the current president of Central European University in Budapest. A version of this essay previously appeared on The Hill’s Congress Blog.