The US human rights policy is officially bankrupt. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but the facts are simply there, staring us right in the face. In a recent episode of the Colbert Report, which featured a fast-talking Pulitzer-winning Glenn Greenwald discussing his role in bringing to light the Snowden leaks, he quipped that the NSA story to make the biggest waves has yet to be revealed. Without going into too many details, the journalist said that the cliff-hanger will only last “four to eight weeks”, before the story is ready for publishing.

After Wikileaks and Snowden, Cuban Twitter, drones and Guantanamo, how many hits can the US take before it hangs its white hat out to dry and puts on its Darth Vader cape? Jokes aside, it is true that American worldwide clout has suffered tremendously over its human rights record, leading to sub-optimal results in juggling its different foreign policy interests.

But fear not, there may be hope yet. The Obama administration is going through one of the most delicate moments in recent history. It therefore has the once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn things around and reform US standing on the global sphere. The current rhetoric of the benevolent hegemon that keeps a watchful eye over the state of global affairs and condemns deviations from the set course works only if it is perceived as having a spotless record. Lose that perception and one loses legitimacy and, ultimately, the power to act.

What’s the Constitution got to do with anything?

Washington has a conflicting relationship with international law. Arguably, America has had the greatest role in creating the rules that underpin the global order. Arguably still, it has faced insurmountable internal differences in pushing many of the treaties it has signed through Congress. Under current laws, Congress must approve an international treaty by a two-thirds majority before it takes effect, the same legal standard required to amend the Constitution.

The contradiction between drafting treaties without signing them stems from opposing interpretations of the Constitution, with one side of the political aisle arguing that any international law infringes on the sovereignty of US citizens. Putting in balance the pros and cons, it seems obvious that the US has more to gain by falling in line than by being a simple onlooker.

Major human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly called on Washington to enforce a series of international treaties, which will allow the country to “reposition itself as a global leader in human rights”. At the moment, the US is in the select company of Somalia and South Sudan as the only states in the world that have failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely and rapidly ratified instrument in history. It sets standards for education and penal laws and gives children the right to have a say in decisions that affect them.

Efforts to ratify The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women have been met with the same fate, as Washington is one of the seven UN members that have not ratified it. The others are Iran, Somalia, Palau, Sudan, Tonga and South Sudan, a dreadful troupe for the world’s most powerful country and self-proclaimed beacon of democratic values.

And the list goes on. The American Convention on Human Rights (the San Jose Pact), the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), none of these fundamental treaties has been signed/ratified by the United States.

Formal ratifications of these treaties would demonstrate Washington’s commitment to human rights standards to the world, especially since the US Constitution is compatible with the values upheld by the international community. Once signed, other rogue states would no longer be able to so easily justify their own refusals to join in the system of international law.

Most of all, it would restore Washington’s influence in global affairs, setting the country on the same moral footing as the countries it seeks to guide.

Why not Latin America?

The Organization of American States (OAS) could be a test bed for this strategy. Unlike the UN, Washington has no special legal status within the organization and it has traditionally had to rely on its own legitimacy rather than on formal instruments to make its voice heard. Unfortunately, the US was shamed by many OAS members precisely for its refusal to sign international human rights charters, including all of the conventions and protocols of the Inter-American System of Human Rights.

reform of this system and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) begun in June 2011, at the OAS General Assembly that tried to persuade its members to sign the aforementioned conventions and arrive at a common standard of human rights enforcement. Despite calls for a reasonable reform of the system, including the relocation of the IACHR from Washington to a signatory country of the San Jose Pact, America has proven stubborn in its will to change and has continued to behave as the dominant power in the organization.

Washington would be wise to sign off and accept that it doesn’t have the moral stature anymore to deliver sermons without facing resistance.

Once upon a time, the US used to behave as the world’s moral compass, but now the distinction between right and wrong has grown increasingly blurry in Washington. The political elite should bury the hatchet of war, shake off its bipartisan strife and act in accordance with the ideals preached by the Founding Fathers. The US cannot confer legitimacy nor offer leadership through half-hearted pleas for human rights only in the instances that advance its own interests abroad. True leaders lead by example and seduce, not coax, others into following.



About Author

Caroline Holmund

Caroline Holmund is a consultant and aspiring freelance journalist based in New York

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