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.