Posted on

The United States and Human Rights

From Global Perspectives on the United States, Vol. 3. (c) Berkshire Publishing 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The United States and Human Rights

In the U.S. Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson declared that all people have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the United States was founded on the basis of natural rights—universal, moral rights of citizens to have what is necessary for a good life. These natural rights were modern philosophy’s first form of human rights. The U.S. Constitution was designed to protect these rights, especially the right to be free of domination. However, whereas the U.S. Constitution has been admired since its creation, the U.S. government has often failed to guarantee human rights and is increasingly seen in the world as a new form of imperial power. This hypocrisy has generated criticism—increasingly so from the world human rights movement. On the one hand, the United States is one of the world’s inaugural contributors to human rights; on the other hand, the United States has supported the severest of human rights violations. Moreover, it undermines the international structure of human rights as a whole. “From hero to villain” describes the United States in the eyes of the human rights movement.

World Human Rights Movement

The human rights movement is found in almost every country. It consists of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), regional and international courts, the United Nations (U.N.), official statements by most nation-states; and a diffuse culture of Internet sites, hip-hop and rock songs, posters and graffiti, bumper stickers, and thoughts that guide the lives of millions of people. Nongovernmental organizations include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droit de l’Homme (International Federation of Human Rights Leagues). Courts include the European Court of Human Rights—a regional court—and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United Nations was chartered with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nations today regularly use the rhetoric of human rights to defray criticism, showing that human rights are increasingly basic to the discourse of national politics.

These elements of the human rights movement may seem rather unconnected, but we can speak of a human rights movement because people around the world use these elements to refer to each other. NGOs pressure governments to hand over the accused to the ICC. Cyberspace chat rooms refer people to the Internet sites of NGOs. School children visit the U.N. and recite poems or sing folk songs advocating respect for the dignity of people. A bumper sticker featuring a U.S. flag and the words “These colors don’t run the world” connects with the thoughts of another driver, who e-mails her congresswoman to pressure the U.S. government to support U.N. multilateralism and the human rights of military prisoners. Even administrations seen as contemptuous of human rights by the movement try to explain their policies in terms of human rights, as the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush did in 2003 when justifying the invasion of Iraq ex post facto once weapons of mass destruction were not found. A circulation of human rights norms exists in the world today.

The overarching goal of these norms is to translate a universal and minimal morality into international law and the many cultures of the world. That morality is “universal” because it is for all humans and supposedly justifiable to all humans. That morality is “minimal” because it is supposed to concern only basic human rights. Some cultures may arrange marriages, giving some room for the autonomy of the young. However, all humans deserve the ability to maintain their bodily integrity and so have a right against being tortured. The human rights movement wants to build this minimal morality into international law and the governance of all nation-states. However, the United States often obstructs that goal.

U.S. Might

An increasingly common perception is that the United States obstructs or undermines the consistent spread of human rights in the world. In fact, the human rights movement has long known that the United States supports human rights violations, often covering its actions only enough to appear just. The United States supports human rights violations because such rights limit U.S. power internationally. There are two ways by which human rights limit such power.

First, human rights limit national power. Since the Cold War the United States has supported dictatorial regimes, including regimes with policies of arbitrary imprisonment, torture, or widespread state assassination. The United States did so during the Cold War in order to oppose the spread of communism, for instance, in Central America. The United States does so today in order to maintain its interests in a region, for instance the Middle East. The United States also commits its own violations. It has an official policy of torture, for instance, in Afghanistan, as well as an unofficial policy, as witnessed in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (2003), where psychological humiliation tactics developed at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, holding facility were taught to military police. The thread running through these examples is that the United States has supported human rights abuse for the sake of geopolitical control. Having to support human rights might limit U.S. power by making dictators or torturers illegitimate geopolitical players.

Second, human rights limit capitalism. Many corporations depend on the United States for protection of their interests, and some people have said that the national ethos (distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs) of the United States is capitalism. The United States has benefited greatly from a relatively unregulated capitalist economy, especially on the global scale: The United States uses one-quarter of the Earth’s resources. Human rights, however, place limits on capitalism. For instance, they demand that work conditions be humane and that workers and communities be able to hold corporations responsible for harms done against them. A discourse is emerging from the human rights movement about transnational corporations. Disregarding human rights violations favors capitalism and specifically U.S. corporations that profit from cheap labor conditions and resources internationally.

National power and unregulated capitalism are motives to uphold human rights inconsistently. The United States upholds human rights principles in some of its policies but not in others. Such inconsistency is not limited to international affairs.

Domestic Violations

The United States is inconsistent in domestic human rights, too. One of the U.S. practices most offensive to the human rights movement is the death penalty. The death penalty violates the right to life (in one interpretation) or the right to freedom (in another interpretation). No other Western country imposes the death penalty. The anti-death penalty segment of the human rights movement holds the United States in contempt.

The United States commits other human rights violations that might be called “violations of human vulnerability.” They include not providing protection against homelessness and inadequate medical care for all. In the United States—one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world—millions of people struggle with homelessness or lack of adequate medical care. Their lives are vulnerable to a high degree. Both the homeless and those without adequate medical care have shorter life expectancies than those with homes and access to medicine. Moreover, these vulnerable people find their actual freedom abridged, dominated by circumstances that could be in society’s control.

The United States deserves acclaim for its rule of law—one of the cornerstones of human rights—but its rule of law works inconsistently. People who are minorities in the strict sense—the poor, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, the uneducated—populate death row and jails or lose trials much more commonly than they should, given trial and sentencing results for members of the majority who face similar charges. As with U.S. might internationally, it seems that U.S. might domestically creates uneven treatment inside the United States.

What Is the United States?

Given these inconsistencies, a question that people ask is, “What is the United States?” On the one hand, the United States was one of the world’s inaugural advocates for human rights; on the other hand, the United States serves power: national power, corporate power, power of the culturally or economically privileged. This fact is increasingly true today as the Bush administration has acted to deregulate the world, act unilaterally, reverse centuries of international law by engaging in preemptive war, and expand U.S. power in “the new American century.” Given that the United States was founded on modern philosophy’s earliest form of human rights—natural rights—and defined itself as supporting the dignity of people, the situation isn’t trivial. Nothing less than the dignity of millions around the world and U.S. identity are at stake.

If a necessary condition of identity is that one conform to one’s moral principles, then the United States must support human rights. However, if morality is not a necessary condition of identity, then the United States is not necessarily being hypocritical when it supports human rights inconsistently. The problem is that people’s moral convictions are basic to their identity, and the moral convictions of the United States are the foundation of the nation because the United States is a constitutional democracy based on a commitment to honor the right of people to be free.

The United States must support human rights—and is hypocritical when it does not—because the nation is founded on its Constitution. This Constitution defines the United States through commitment to protect people from domination—to respect people’s right to be free. Thus, when people around the world look at U.S. domestic and international policy with disbelief because it violates human rights, they—and not Americans who support that policy—see the true United States.


One of the greatest contributions of the United States to the world human rights movement is its Constitution (1788) with its Bill of Rights (1789 but effectively inactive until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified). By its design, the U.S. Constitution—through balance of power, democracy, and the rule of law—makes sure the government does not dominate the people. Here are major elements of the human rights movement today: the rights that people have to hold their government accountable to them and to remain free and the right of all people to due process and equal treatment under the law. When we add the principles of the Declaration of Independence to the legal structure of the Constitution and emphasize the liberties and due process of the Bill of Rights, we see that the United States was defined from its origin as a protector of human rights.

Constitutionalism is important to the human rights movement because the very possibility of human right depends on it in practice. A right is a legal concept. No true human rights order can exist without a constitutional structure to make the rule of law fundamental to the operation of nations. When nations are governed by a constitution, moral principles—not any particular person or group—rule. This rule limits the arbitrary power of any specific interest and maintains strict moral equality. In short, constitutions are important for making governments fair and nondominating. This idea is old in the Western tradition under what is called the “civic republican tradition.”

The United States has a historical place in the human rights movement in part because the U.S. rule of law has been admired. Although this rule of law can be inconsistent, people in nonconstitutional countries often covet having a right to fair representation and due process under the law. Such a right means that the rule in the United States is to have fair process—rather than the caprice of the powerful—decide a great part of people’s lives. Instead, the powerful must hide their attempt to deny people fair process. Think of how fair representation can help workers unfairly accused of a misdeed. Think of how due process can save a falsely accused person.

People also admire the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. A striking image of this admiration is the lone Tiananmen Square protester in Beijing, China, in 1989. Two hundred years after the Bill of Rights, he stood alone before a Chinese army tank for the sake of his right to voice his political views. Whereas people in many parts of the world are not free to take part in their government—even to voice their views in public—Americans are. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) work to protect such human rights.

Culture of Freedom and Equality

Central to the U.S. Constitution are moral commitments to freedom and equality. Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, all humans are equal, and they have a right to freedom and the “pursuit of happiness.” These moral commitments—ensconced in constitutional law—have had profound effects on U.S. culture and indirectly on the world human rights movement.

The United States has been a showcase for the liberation of oppressed groups, albeit a showcase with as much inconsistency as liberation. African-Americans (slave and nonslave), women, gays, the disabled, the elderly—all these minority groups have sought freedom and equal respect in U.S. culture and law with some success, although much progress remains to be achieved. All of these developments have been relayed to world culture through U.S. popular media. In fact, the role of U.S. popular media in spreading a culture of freedom and equality is surprising, given the materialism and objectification of women in that media. In countries around the world, young people emulate the ambivalently free women and men they see on U.S. TV shows or hear in U.S. songs, even while those songs advocate being materialistic or suggest that women are objects. The U.S. culture of freedom and equality is expressed through the youth-cultural media at the same time some of the uneven tensions in the United States are expressed.

U.S. Idealism

The United States has severe tensions between its moral and legal identity and its actual policies, between its youth culture and its actual practices, and within media representations themselves. These tensions are reflected in criticism of the United States globally. If one wanted to unify this criticism, one might say simply that the global perspective on the United States regarding human rights is that the United States is laudable for its idealism but not for its reality as an international political agent.

U.S. idealism is both cultural and constitutional. Culturally, U.S. media portray the idea that all humans have an equal right to be free and to be treated with respect. This idea is so radically pursued that its results have hardly been schematized. For instance, the U.S. love of psychotherapy can be seen as a result of this idea. Not only do people have a human right to be respected, but also people have a “natural” right to be free from self-hatred. This pursuit of a free life is idealistic at its core: The attempt is to remake life through an idea. Constitutionally, the United States is idealistic in that its very existence as a nation is inextricable from core moral commitments. These commitments—not age-old ethnicity or sediments of ancient rulers—founded and define the country. At origin, strictly speaking, the country is not tradition but rather idea.

The Early Twentieth Century

At no other time was U.S. idealism more important for the human rights movement than during the early twentieth century, when the United States substantially helped people obtain human rights. The role of the United States in founding the United Nations after the United States helped to end World War II shouldn’t be forgotten. The United Nations has always been an international project. However, it was justly placed in New York City because of the leading role that the United States played in its formation. In the early 1900s President Woodrow Wilson envisioned the need for an international governmental body. His vision partially materialized after World War I in the form of the League of Nations. However, the league’s authority was not taken seriously, and only World War II’s Holocaust and the need to avoid a third world war—between Russia and the United States—convinced people around the world that the United Nations was necessary.

What ideals would the United Nations follow? So many religious and philosophical perspectives existed among the people chartering the United Nations. Here again a U.S. statesperson—Eleanor Roosevelt—brought people into accord. Scholars of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) describe how she managed to create a consensus about the document across divergent views. She brought people together in an informal way to work out differences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in turn, became the moral charter of the U.N.—part of the U.N.’s constitution.

Before the United States helped create the United Nations, it helped liberate Europe from fascism during World War II. Many people are critical of the United States recently in part because people set high expectations for the United States. They saw it as a heroic country when it liberated Europe from fascism. Moreover, the U.S. liberation of Europe was understood as an expression of U.S. ideals, among them human rights ideals. Fascism dominated people, and it did not respect any of the rights concerning violence against persons. By liberating Europe from fascism and providing a home for the United Nations, the United States reached midpoint in the twentieth century as a leader in the human rights movement.

However, this period is called the “early twentieth century” and not the “mid-twentieth century” because by 1945–1948, the United States was already embroiled in the Cold War and the manipulation of geopolitics that has earned the United States a bad name around the world today. What came to fruition in 1948 with the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a U.S. constitutional idealism that had turned global. However, like an insight of conscience in a power-stressed world, that idealism almost immediately fell under the immense economics at stake for the post-World War II United States and its massive corporate interests. Whether the United States ever recaptures that moment of insight—an authentic translation of its core identity to the world stage—will determine how future generations of human rights supporters around the world view the United States.

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

Further Reading
Cheney, R., Abrams, E., Libby, I. L., Kagan, D.,et al. (1997). The project for a new American century—Statement of principles. Retrieved March 26th, 2007 from
Corwin, E. S. (1955). The “higher law” background of American constitutional law. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Cranston, M. (1989). The philosophy of human rights. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Ellison, R. (2002). Invisible man. New York: Random House. (Original work published 1952)
Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme. (2004). Retrieved October 5, 2004, from
Glover, J. (1999). Humanity, a moral history of the twentieth century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2001). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
McIlwain, C. (1947). Constitutionalism: Ancient and modern. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Miller, D. (2003). Political philosophy, a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Miller, J. (1996). Search and destroy: African-American males in the criminal justice system. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Morsink, J. (1999). The universal declaration of human rights: Origin, drafting, intent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Nussbaum, M. (2001). Women and human development, the capabilities approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Pettit, P. (1997). Republicanism, a theory of freedom and government. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
United Nations. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights. Retrieved October 5, 2004, from
Zeldin, T. (1996). An intimate history of humanity. New York: Perennial.

One thought on “The United States and Human Rights

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *