President Obama Should Have Gone Farther on Human Rights in His UN Speech

In his speech before the UN General Assembly yesterday, President Obama took some important initial steps in laying out his vision for the role of human rights in achieving long-term foreign policy goals. The President rightly recognized that human rights go beyond just political and civil rights and he explored themes tying human rights to development and government accountability. But he didn’t take these ideas all the way to where his vision seems to lead: A full embrace of all the concepts in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including economic, cultural, and social rights.The President cited the UDHR as his starting point:

One of the first actions of this General Assembly was to adopt a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. That Declaration begins by stating that, “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” The idea is a simple one — that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings.

Through this focus on the impact of human rights on the lives of individual human beings, the President acknowledges the essence of the UDHR. What the President does not make explicit, though, is that the rights that potentially impact on the greatest number of lives — especially those of poor and marginalized populations — are embodied in the Declaration as economic, social, and cultural rights.That’s a missed opportunity. As crafted under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the UDHR viewed all human rights as intertwined and mutually dependent. Civil and political rights were only a part of a broader conception of justice and human dignity which addressed the needs of the whole person. The drafters believed that the full potential of the human being could only be reached within a framework that included social, economic, and cultural rights.Philosophically, there is no essential difference between these categories of rights; only the politics of the Cold War led to an artificial division between them and a false perception of a hierarchy in which civil and political rights took precedence. The Declaration’s blueprint and the international laws flowing from it recognize that a decent standard of living, jobs, housing, health care, education and food are rights just as fundamental as voting, fair trials, and freedom of expression. These essentials for human survival are not matters of charity or benefits, but rights. When people have rights, governments have obligations and citizens can make claims upon them. Officials are accountable for delivery, budgets are transparent, and people must be able to participate in planning and provision of services. The international standard requiring “progressive realization” of these rights means that governments cannot backslide. It means that advocacy to assure rights is in order, not merely sympathy for the victims or half-measures to fill gaps when governments do not deliver.The President showed that he understands the importance of accountability when he observed:

The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens. And the diversity in this room makes clear — no one country has all the answers, but all of us must answer to our own people.

The logic of focusing on the impact of rights on individuals and a recognition of the crucial need for government accountability seems to lead inevitably to acceptance of the importance of economic, social, and cultural rights alongside political and civil rights. The full exercise of political rights can only occur with a foundation of health, security, and education. Those who are sick and lack medical care, for example, are unable to exercise their political and civil rights. In this context, PHR places special emphasis on the right to the highest attainable standard of health. The right to health, grounded in Article 25 of the UDHR, and expanded on in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights, should be fully integrated into US human rights policy both abroad and at home, along with all the other rights in the Covenant. The failure of a nation to provide the highest attainable standard of living adequate for health and well-being as guaranteed in Article 25 of the UDHR is a human rights violation.To complete the vision he began to set out yesterday, the President should signal that his Administration will take another look at the possibility of submitting to the Senate for ratification the treaty on Economic Social and Cultural Rights which the US signed in 1979.After more than 60 years of willful neglect, it is time for the United States to fully and explicitly recommit to the full range of human rights it accepted by approving the UDHR in 1948. As the Declaration recognizes, human rights are indivisible and all must be respected if, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, human beings are to be lifted to “a higher standard of life and a greater enjoyment of freedom.”

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