Why Human Rights Matter

The Supreme Court has struck down the Habeas Corpus rights of a detainee using the flimsiest of arguments: It didn’t happen here (Huffington Post via Jill at Feministe):

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the habeas corpus plea of a Canadian national, captured in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old, because the possible deprivation of his human rights was not conducted on “U.S. soil.”

Jill is right on in her interpretation of the Bush administration’s position on this issue:

Shouldn’t they at least be charged with something? What, exactly, is the problem with our justice system that makes the Bush administration refuse to use it in dealing with supposed terrorists?

Despite all the right-wing flag-humping, Guantanamo strikes me as pretty unpatriotic.

As an issue of human rights, it is so much more. For one thing:

Guantanamo is obviously problematic for the international standards it sets

One of the reasons liberals are so adamant about respecting human rights and international law is that our actions will come back to bite us. If we say it is ok to torture people so long as it isn’t done inside the country, other countries will use our actions to justify their own. When we flout the rules of war, we put our own soldiers in danger when they are captured. When we abuse human rights, we endanger all of our citizens abroad.

However the issue of human rights goes even deeper. The Supreme court can cite all the law they want. If human rights are violated, it doesn’t matter where you are. That is the distinction between human and civil rights.

Human vs Civil Rights via wikipedia:

Human rights refers to universal rights of human beings regardless of jurisdiction or other factors, such as ethnicity, nationality, religion, or sex.


Civil rights are the protections and privileges of personal power given to all citizens by law. Civil rights are distinguished from “human rights” or “natural rights“, also called “our God-given rights”.

To say that the location or jurisdiction of potential violations matters in the case of human rights is to bypass the nature of human rights.  Human rights cannot be granted by governments or courts.  They can only be recognized or ignored.  They cannot be recognized for some people but not others.  They are by nature universal or not at all.

The Bush administration is advancing a terrible cause, and the US Supreme Court has made a horrifying decision in validating that cause.

April 4th was the anniversary of Dr King’s assassination.  When we celebrate his life, his stance on human rights is often left out of the mix:

But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without “human rights” – including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

We can honor his legacy by continuing to fight for the universal recognition of human rights the world over.

We can start right here in the US.


4 Responses

  1. I can’t say I disagree with you on principal, but in application things may be a bit tougher to sort the way through. While you are on track in dissasociation of human rights apart from human rights, who would impose upon a sovereign state a mandate for human rights.

    It seems that such agencies that would do so are peculiarly silent when it comes to human right abuses in “third world nations” or other countries such as China, India, Iran etc. , but seem to love to clamp down rather hard upon Western democracies. This leads to the futility of international agencies, as they are inherently dominated by national interests – human rights or just what is ethically right, notwithstanding.

  2. In practice things are bound to be complicated, because actors at every level from individual on up to international will bring their motivations and biases to the table.

    With regard to Human Rights abuses, we need to be universal in both calling them out and assessing progress.

    I do not think international agencies are futile because of these differences, but we need actors on that international stage who can speak with credibility about human rights.

    The US could be such an actor, but we have to both admit to and end our own abuses to do so as effectively as we want to. When China calls us on our own violations, they are right. This doesn’t diminish their own abuses (and we should call them out ourselves at every opportunity). However if we can say we made the transition from human rights abuser to a country that recognizes and acts to protect human rights, we can use that experience to bring serial abusers of human rights like China back to the table.

    Human rights advocacy can start at home, but it shouldn’t be limited by any means.

    Just as we try to change the makeup of congress and the minds of congresscritters, let’s do the same with international agencies.

  3. However, by degree the abuses in China are imposed typically for repression of what could be described as basic rights of mankind. I have less of an issue about how self desribed terrorists are treated. You could throw in murderers, rapists, pedophiles into that mix. I don’t agree with what happened at Abu Graib, and some of the incidents of GITMO, and probably some of the goings on at a state pen, but to compare the two categories of criminals, felons and/or terrorists to people who read a Bible or a Buddhist tract is a BIG stretch.

  4. I’m not saying at all the abuses are equal in number or severity.
    I am saying it would be practically easier for us to move China towards respecting human rights if we work to improve our own record and stance.

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