Civil liberties,human rights

The people who used to light single candles rather than curse the darkness now have searchlights at their disposal.

The Helsinki Accord and other treaties of the 1970s gave rise to a wave of new human rights groups. They labored tirelessly to publicize the failures of totalitarian regimes to uphold rights they had just signed onto. These activists helped end the cold war.

Their movement started small but has grown. "It's a big battalion. It's got troops, it's got divisions. It's got fax machines!" Harvard historian Michael Ignatieff told a recent forum on human rights at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. The annual budget of Human Rights Watch, for instance, has grown from $200,000 to $20 million.

The world's human rights agenda is changing, in part because sovereignty is changing. Governments are more willing to accept international norms. Courts now cite precedents from courts in other countries. Even the historically Euroskeptical British have signed onto European standards of justice.

The United States remains out of step with all this.

"There are three great languages of American freedom: civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights," the Canadian-born Ignatieff said. "But human rights is for export. At home you use the language of civil liberties." The US system remains "self-enclosed."

For this, Ignatieff blames the legacy of slavery. The hesitancy to accept international human rights standards goes back to the 1950s, when the US feared exposing the Jim Crow South to global scrutiny.

And today, Americans fail to appreciate the degree to which the US is the outlier on issues such as capital punishment, and the rights of women and children.

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