Our Inalienable Human Rights

Our Inalienable Human Rights

Despite their political differences, Americans are strikingly united on the value of human rights, according to a new poll sponsored by The Nation.


Today is International Human Rights Day, celebrated across the world to mark the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948. While the topic of human rights is frequently in the news, mainstream media coverage of human rights invariably describes violations in faraway lands: censorship in China, repression in Myanmar. Social injustice in our country, when it enters the public discourse, is almost never discussed in terms of fundamental human rights.

But a new national poll conducted by The Opportunity Agenda and sponsored by The Nation reveals that Americans care deeply about human rights here at home. They see human rights as crucial to who we are as a country, and they worry that we are not living up to those principles in our national policies and practices.

The poll, along with a series of focus groups and interviews, represents the most extensive body of opinion research ever assembled on this subject. In a time of considerable political and ideological polarization in our country, the level of national consensus on human rights is striking.

Eighty percent of Americans agree–62 percent “strongly”–that “every person has basic rights regardless of whether their government recognizes those rights or not.” Eight in ten also believe that “we should strive to uphold human rights in the US because there are people being denied their human rights in our country.” And three-quarters want the United States to focus on making regular progress on human rights. Only two in ten said the United States should move “slowly” or allow human rights solutions to “evolve naturally.”

For Americans, human rights are a matter of national values. They view human rights as crucial to protecting the dignity, fairness and opportunity that all people deserve. And they treasure the historic American ideal, voiced by Thomas Jefferson, of inalienable rights that flow from our creator.

Particularly striking is the disconnect between the beliefs of Americans and the positions that the US government has taken–across administrations and parties–regarding human rights here at home. Since the cold war, our government has contended that the only “real” human rights are civil and political rights like free speech and freedom of religion, while denying the validity of economic and social rights like the right to education or healthcare as, at best, aspirational and, at worst, socialistic. But Americans overwhelmingly reject that dichotomy, instead embracing economic human rights alongside civil and political ones.

Large majorities, for example, believe “strongly” that human rights include “equal access to quality education,” access to healthcare (72 percent) and “fair pay for workers to meet their basic needs for food and housing” (68 percent). These attitudes parallel Americans’ strong belief that civil and political rights like freedom from torture or abuse by law enforcement (83 percent), equal opportunity regardless of race (85 percent) and gender (86 percent), and being treated fairly in the criminal justice system (83 percent) are human rights that must be protected.

The US government has at times contended that Americans don’t need human rights because we have a Bill of Rights and other protections in our Constitution. But Americans see constitutional rights and human rights as mutually essential. Asked whether they believed that “because the US has the Constitution and Bill of Rights we do not need to strive to uphold human rights here in America,” 81 percent disagreed–61 percent strongly–while only 18 percent agreed with the statement.

These findings should be a wake-up call for our government and a new tool for those working for social justice in our country. Policy decisions about healthcare reform, for example, should reflect healthcare’s status as a fundamental human right that Americans overwhelmingly embrace. That means, for example, that any healthcare proposal must ensure quality care to everyone in our country while tearing down barriers to care based on race, gender, income or geography.

Similarly, addressing inadequate and starkly unequal resources within our public schools takes on new urgency when it moves from being a good idea to being a right that all children and parents have simply by virtue of their humanity. And the way we treat prisoners domestically and in places like Guantánomo and Abu Ghraib must change when 67 percent of Americans agree, as they did in this survey, that “torturing prisoners suspected of terrorism is a violation of the prisoners’ human rights.”

This spring, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will review the US government’s report on racial discrimination within its borders and its efforts to address it. Organizations around the country will also weigh in on US performance with their own reports to the UN committee. It will be the first report by the United States since the catastrophic handling of Hurricane Katrina, federal inaction surrounding the Jena Six case, racial profiling after the events of September 11, 2001, and other developments that Americans see as human rights concerns.

Coming in the midst of the presidential campaign, the CERD committee process is an important opportunity to bring a human rights perspective back to US social issues. It is a chance to ask the candidates what they would do, specifically, to enforce our domestic human rights obligations as well as whether they would seek ratification of outstanding human rights agreements that most of the world’s governments have joined. These include the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention Against Torture; the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child–which only the United States and the failed state of Somalia have failed to join. The survey shows strong support among US voters for the rights contained in those treaties.

To be sure, Americans have questions about the specifics of human rights enforcement–including cynicism about the effectiveness of the US government and the United Nations as protectors of rights. But there is little disagreement that human rights are a crucial goal to strive for and that we must do more as a nation to secure them here at home.

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