Human rights in the United States has been a somewhat controversial subject over the years. One might think that a country that was founded on breaking away from the “tyranny of monarchy” seeking “justice and liberty for all” would naturally be a bastion of human rights for all people. But the history of this democracy has shown human rights to be more complicated when transformed from ideal to practice . American human rights reflect that this issue, in practice, is hard to balance when one tries to combine it at a national and a personal level.
One arena where this dilemma appears in American history is balancing the rights of the many versus the rights of the minority, or in some cases, the individual. The issue of federalism, the philosophy which bound together a loose federation of former colonies together under one nation, has from the nation’s inception had to combat against the concept of states’ rights. The balancing act requires the federal government to maintain authority while not infringing upon the rights of the states. This leads to a constant weighing out of legislation in light of allowing people to choose a certain kind of life in one state and feeling assurance that this freedom will be protected to live this way, while still holding onto national identity as Americans. The present debate over gay marriage is an example of states choosing their own destiny with regards to particular issues.
Historically, the American Constitution allows for this kind of liberty for states to create their own legislation, with the federal government keeping out of the way. It is a way where one can exercise personal freedom in their local region. This personal determination was a unique way that the young democracy created its own definition of human rights.
Over the years, one of the biggest and most controversial issues justified through states’ rights was that of slavery. There are very few today who would ever consider the right to hold slaves synonymous with human rights issues such as freedom of speech, religion or movement. But in the United States, this issue took on a life of its own when new states were introduced into the growing union. Slave-holding states felt that they should have sovereign right over their slaves without interference from the federal government. After all, when the slaves were purchased, it was a legal transaction. States who used slavery to benefit their economies felt any part of the federal government to infringe upon their right to own slaves was an infringement upon their right to life, liberty, and pursuit of property. This is one reason why the slavery issue wasn’t so easy to resolve, and perhaps helps gives understanding as to why men who called themselves Christian could hold slaves at the same time. Slaves were in the Bible, after all.
States’ rights, the independent state of the American legislature, and other questions of sovereignty have been part of the American history of human rights. The United States has been reluctant to become a full party to the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Treaty for, among other reasons, the concern that international law will circumvent law created by the federal government. The concern lies in the fact that the American political climate would prefer to dictate its own terms rather than have it dictated in the Hague or Strasbourg.
The death penalty is another controversial quagmire in dealing with the culture of American human rights. International law determines that no person who committed a capital crime under the age of eighteen should be executed. Until the Supreme Court overruled the practice in 2005, the United States had a rather complicated formula with regards to the issue of juvenile criminals. Those guilty of a federal capital crime had to be eighteen if they were to be executed for their crimes. However, federal law left it open to the states to determine what age they wished to hold a standard of execution. In the state of Texas, for example, the age was seventeen. This led to the execution of convicted juvenile killer Gary Graham several months before then Governor George Bush became president.
Although the execution violated international standards, the former governor and president did not break any state laws, nor was in violation of federal standards. Thus, the United States complied with federal law while still having open for the states to determine themselves. And in the presidential election less than five months after Graham’s execution, Governor Bush became President Bush. There was no investigation into his allowing the execution to go forward, because he was not in violation of any American law, even though most human rights organizations would consider the practice of executing juvenile criminals to be a human rights violation. Until the Supreme Court ruling, nineteen states kept laws allowing executions of juvenile criminals on the books. After all, it was their right to do so.
Of course, the most recent debate in the United States is the one with regards to torture. Though practices such as rendition had been part of American policy during the Clinton years, and the United States sometimes chose allies with abhorrent human rights records for its own ends (think Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War), it was after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 where the issue of American human rights really became central.
With the 2002 opening of the prison in Guantanamo Bay and the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal, the spotlight turned on American personnel who were willing to stretch the law for their own ends. To some, there was no human rights problem. Any rough treatment was simply was a question of protecting the rights of many people over that of a criminal, and to say otherwise was tantamount to saying that you were unwilling to fight terrorists.
Using the invented status of “enemy combatant” to describe detainees, many officials felt it was justifiable to circumvent the American Constitution and the Geneva Convention in the interest of national security. One of the purposes of a country is, after all, to protect its citizens. If the country is under attack, the logic seemed to go, wasn’t it all right for American officials to act in whatever measure to protect its citizens? At the time, it seemed the answer was yes to many. Enhanced interrogation seemed more like protecting human rights to some than worrying about torturing some criminal.
But with the election of Barack Obama, it seems the answer has shifted to at least a qualified no. The current American President campaigned on a platform of change, and one of these things was the pledge to close Guantanamo Bay. Once elected, this is exactly what he did. His Attorney General, Eric Holden, has now called for a commission to investigate the torture allegations of the previous administration. What this seems to say is that American human rights have taken another turn. It may have been all right to use force in earlier administrations, but the Obama administration seems to be saying that the Geneva Convention applies in all circumstances, including those cases where terrorism are involved.
With the end of slavery, blacks could not be legally regarded as property under any circumstances. States rights could not be invoked as a human right over that of an individual black. Now, with the investigation into waterboarding and enhanced interrogation, it appears that doing whatever it takes to protect national interests is may not be as acceptable as it once was. If this trend continues, national security can not be trumped as a right that supercedes any individuals rights, even if he or she is a potential criminal. Only time will tell if the Obama administration will continue along this new road to human rights, or if it seems better to justify certain actions in the name of national security.
The history of American human rights has gone through many evolutions, and there is no reason to think that it won’t in the future. The country that was founded on individual liberty has gone through many definitions of what it means to be free while insuring liberty for all. It has been an ebb and flow between statutes intended to protect the disadvantages at the expense of the freedom of some, and near liberty to do what you will to gain personal advantage. It has been a negotiation of how much liberty a state has to determine its identity versus what it means to have a national identity as an American. Individual rights will always be touted as paramount, but how much that conflicts with the rights of others will always be an issue in American culture. The right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is enshrined as a guarantee, and over the years it has, and will be, subject to debate as to what it means to let all people live out that human right.