The Cost Of American Virtue, Arrogance

by William J. Aceves

May 11, 2001

Aceves is Associate Professor of Law at California Western School of Law.  He teaches on human rights and international law.

In January 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt was elected the first chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. At the time, it was an appropriate selection. The United States had been a strong advocate for the creation of the United Nations and had been equally supportive of the need to promote human rights in the postwar era. To many, however, the election of Eleanor Roosevelt was also a signal to the United States — an appeal for its participation and a call for its leadership.

The Commission on Human Rights was established by the United Nations to guide its human rights program. Its first act was the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration is perhaps the most important document of the twentieth century. It represents the first international effort to codify the fundamental rights of humanity. The commission also played an integral role in drafting two other documents: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together, these three documents are referred to as the International Bill of Rights and form the foundation of international human rights law.

In recent years, the Commission on Human Rights has provided a forum for claims to be raised by state and nonstate actors. The commission has the authority to conduct fact-finding investigations of alleged human rights violations and to publish reports of its findings. Each year, the commission debates the adoption of resolutions based upon its work. Resolutions adopted by the commission have no legal effect; however, they have a strong moral and political impact. As a result, states are loath to be the subject of a critical resolution and lobby to prevent their adoption.

For over 50 years, the United States was represented and played a prominent role in the Commission on Human Rights. Last week, in a stunning development, members of the U.N. Economic and Social Council chose not to renew U.S. membership on the commission. While 43 countries had originally agreed to vote for the United States, only 29 actually did. After 54 years, the United States is no longer a member of the Commission on Human Rights. On the same day, the U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board voted the United States off its 54-member board, America receiving the support of only 21 members.

These developments come as no surprise. It is the inevitable cost of virtue and arrogance. On the human rights vote, two groups voted against the United States: (1) countries that violate human rights and sought to silence the United States; and (2) countries that respect human rights and have grown weary of U.S. intransigence. It would not be unexpected for China or Cuba to vote against the United States. The United States regularly used the Commission on Human Rights as a forum to condemn the human rights record of these countries. It is unfortunate, however, that moderate countries voted against U.S. membership.

Why should moderate countries vote against the United States? In recent years, the United States has become increasingly isolated within the international community.

In March 2001, the Bush administration announced that the United States would not comply with the Kyoto Protocol. This agreement, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has attained a strong consensus among U.S. allies.

In 1999, the Senate rejected the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a treaty signed by over 187 countries.

In July 1998, the United States voted against the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. While President Clinton signed the Rome Statute in December 2000, there is no indication that the Bush administration will pursue ratification.

Since 1997, the United States has refused to sign the Landmines Convention, even though the agreement has been signed by over 135 countries, including all major U.S. allies.

Since 1989, the United States has refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Somalia is the only other country in the world that has not ratified this treaty.

This list is by no means exhaustive. One of the most divisive international issues remains the continued use of the death penalty in the United States. With each execution, the United States is subject to increasing criticism and contempt by the growing number of abolitionist countries. Because the right to life forms the cornerstone of all human rights, the use of capital punishment undermines the credibility of U.S. human rights policy.

As a sovereign country, the United States is certainly entitled to address these issues in the manner it deems appropriate. As a member of the international community, however, the United States must recognize the impact of its actions. Its position on these issues places the United States in conflict with much of the international community.

During the Cold War, these differences were often overlooked by countries that were fearful of alienating the United States and more fearful of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War freed the Soviet bloc. Ironically, it also freed the Western bloc. Countries are now more likely to challenge the United States, particularly in the realm of human rights. As a result, the costs of virtue and arrogance have increased.

The United States must continue to denounce human rights violations, regardless of the cost. The impact of these denunciations, however, will depend upon the credibility of its own record. The United States cannot ignore the views of the international community. Such arrogance has already proven costly.

Next year, the United States will again be eligible for election to the Commission on Human Rights. Perhaps the interim will serve as an opportunity for self-reflection, and the United States will recall how its selection to the Commission was viewed by the international community in 1947 — as an appeal for its participation and a call for its leadership.