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Human Rights

The United States And Human Rights

Although the United States was an active participant in the formation and implementation of international human rights organizations and treaties following World War II, and although it ratified selected treaties such as the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery in 1967 and the Convention on the Political Rights of Women in 1976, it did not ratify any of the major rights treaties until 1988, when it approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Four years later it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The U.S. Senate, which has authority to ratify all treaties, has been slow to review and approve human rights provisions, for a number of reasons. Senators have expressed concern about the effect of international treaties on U.S. domestic law. Article VI of the U.S. Constitution provides, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land." Treaties therefore stand as federal law, though they are not considered to be law if they conflict with the Constitution (Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 77 S. Ct. 1222, 1 L. Ed. 2d 1148 [1957]).

Conservative senators blocked early ratification of human rights treaties largely out of concern that the treaties would invalidate racial SEGREGATION laws that existed in the United States until the 1960s. Many human rights advocates claimed that these laws violated existing international treaties. Some senators argued that human rights should fall under domestic authority only and should not be subject to international negotiations. Others contended that ratification of human rights treaties would federalize areas of law better left to the states.

Since the late 1960s, such objections in the Senate have been overcome by attaching to treaties modifying terms called reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs). RUDs modify the treaties so that their effect on U.S. law will be acceptable to the two-thirds majority required for treaty ratification in the Senate. A reservation, for example, may state that the United States will not accept any element of a treaty found to be in conflict with the U.S. Constitution or existing laws, or that ratification will not federalize areas of law currently controlled by the states.

The U.S. Congress has also enacted its own human rights legislation. Under the leadership of Representative Donald M. Fraser (D-Minn.) during the 1970s, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs added language to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 (22 U.S.C.A. § 2151 et seq.) that required the president to cancel military and economic assistance to any government that "engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights," including torture and arbitrary detention without charges (§§ 2151n, 2304). This new legislation authorized the STATE DEPARTMENT to collect and analyze data on human rights violations. Congress has also passed laws that require cutting off or limiting aid to countries with significant human rights violations.

In 1977, Congress gave human rights greater priority within the EXECUTIVE BRANCH by creating a new State Department office, the Bureau on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, headed by an assistant secretary of state (Pub. L. No. 95-105, 91 Stat. 846). In 1994, the administration of President BILL CLINTON renamed the office the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The bureau is charged with administering programs and policies to promote democratic institutions and respect for human rights and workers' rights around the world. It also presents to Congress an ANNUAL REPORT on the status of human rights all over the globe.

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