Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Constitution in 2020 -- America and the World Constitutional Rights as Human Rights?

Guest Blogger

For The Constitution in 2020 Conference, October 2-4, 2009 at Yale Law School. Crossposted at The Constitution in 2020 blog.

Jennifer Martinez

A decade ago, lawyers in the United States who worked on cases involving mistreatment of prisoners might have talked about those cases as involving “police brutality.”The lawyers would have described them as falling under the rubric of constitutional litigation involving “civil rights” and “civil liberties.”Today, those same lawyers might describe the same mistreatment of prisoners as “torture” and a violation of “human rights.”

Does the difference in terminology matter, or is this merely a reflection of a “trendy” but superficial globalization?The shift towards the use and consideration of international human rights law by domestic advocacy groups in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon (though one with historical precursors).As the ACLU’s website explains:

“In 2004, the ACLU created a Human Rights Program (HRP) specifically dedicated to holding the U.S. government accountable to universal human rights principles in addition to rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. HRP is part of a reemerging movement of U.S. based organizations that uses the international human rights framework in domestic rights advocacy.”

Are American constitutional lawyers talking about international human rights the legal equivalent of a pretentious francophilic suburbanite air kissing her friends and declaring the latest sweater at Target to be “très chic”?

Is reference to international human rights law a useful strategy for progressive constitutional advocates, or does it simply invite criticism and attack on the grounds that dangerous and undemocratic “foreign” influences are being illegitimately injected into our legal system?Am I calling in the black helicopters here?

Accuse me of having drunk too much of the international human rights Kool-Aid if you wish, but I believe that thoughtful engagement with the broader international human rights movement by progressive constitutional advocates is good for America and good for the world.Why?

The language of international human rights has become a dominant global discourse.There are well-known criticisms of this discourse, to be sure, but the language of human rights has exerted a powerful influence on the way that people around the globe think and talk about issues of fundamental importance to the way people live their lives – from their ability to speak freely, participate in government, practice religion, shape their families and other social connections, engage with government and civil society on terms of equality, achieve the minimum conditions of material prosperity necessary for a life of dignity – water, food, shelter, medical care, education.We can’t participate in this global conversation if we don’t speak the same language as progressive advocates in other countries.

International human rights law addresses many of the same issues and concerns as U.S. constitutional law, though there are of course quite important differences between the two bodies of law.Most obviously, international law embraces a broader vision of rights including not only civil and political rights, but also economic and social rights. In this respect, the global human rights regime echoes the framework put forth by Franklin Roosevelt in his “Four Freedoms Speech” in 1941 – freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion. The drafting of important international human rights instruments in the aftermath of World War II was heavily influenced by these ideas.Roosevelt’s concern for security – freedom from fear – as a basic human need also resonates today in attempts to balance individual liberty with the need for protection against violence, either by states or non-state actors.In the international legal order, however, freedom from fear finds its institutional home in the collective security framework of the U.N. Charter rather than in human rights law; and the tension between security and rights is no less evident in international law than national legal systems.Understanding security as a human rights issue, however, is vital to confronting many of the challenges America will face in the coming decades.

International human rights law differs from U.S. constitutional law in other important ways as well.It emphasizes personhood over citizenship as a foundation for rights (though of course, many parts of the Constitution speak of persons and people, not citizens).Its focus on human dignity finds echoes in many post World War II constitutions, but not so explicitly in the text of our own Constitution.It operates within a different institutional framework, in which litigation is often less important than documenting and publicizing abuses; raising awareness of issues; generating political pressure; lobbying and diplomacy.

Far from making international human rights law irrelevant to a progressive constitutional vision, these differences in perspective and strategy can be quite useful in rethinking a way forward in the coming decades.As Rachel Moran and David Cole, among others, discuss in their contributions to the Constitution in 2020, even progressive theories of constitutional law that place great weight on citizenship run the risk of undermining the basic dignity afforded to non-citizens. Many of the essays in the volume address issues of economic and social inequality and inadequacy.And many address the idea of the Constitution – and constitutional rights – outside the courts.International human rights law speaks to all of these concerns.

The United States has long been a leader in international human rights.Core international instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are modeled on rights established and developed in U.S. constitutional law.Our nation has been a powerful advocate for human rights in its diplomacy and in important international fora.

Today, as many have pointed out, the United States role as a global human rights leader is imperiled. Why? Recent policies of the United States government, especially detention and interrogation in connection with the “war on terror”, have involved significant and very high-profile human rights violations.Members of the Bush Administration openly defended practices that constitute torture.In other areas of individual rights, the U.S. also does not compare favorably with other developed democracies. Death penalty? Gays in the military? Universal health care?Decent primary education? To be sure, in some areas such as free speech, the U.S. has adopted standards that are more protective of individual rights than other nations.But the United States faces serious challenges in our claims of preeminent leadership in the human rights field.

When our Supreme Court disses foreign and international courts, the judges on those courts become less likely to care what the U.S. Supreme Court thinks.As several recent articles have pointed out, constitutional courts around the world are increasingly likely to cite the European Court of Human Rights or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rather than the U.S. Supreme Court.As Vicki Jackson points out in her essay, when we act as if we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world, we run the risk of being left out of, and thereby unable to contribute to, the development of, a global body of law that is likely to have an important impact on U.S. interests in decades to come.

More importantly, when U.S. behavior evinces a double-standard – acting as if the rules of international human rights law apply to other countries but not to us – we increase the likelihood that other countries will claim that they, too, are not bound by these allegedly universal principles.

Like various contributors to the Constitution in 2020 volume -- including Harold Koh, David Cole, Vicki Jackson, Judith Resnik and others -- I believe the United States has a key role to play in shaping the world outside our borders.

We will be a stronger, wealthier, and safer country in 2020 if other countries respect human rights.

Moreover, U.S. constitutional law may well benefit from consideration of the way that similar issues are conceptualized and resolved in international human rights law.Even if we do not always cite foreign or international sources in our briefs, it is useful for progressive advocates to know something about how our counterparts in other countries conceptualize an issue.Maybe even talk with those counterparts.Just as advocates for the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century drew strength from transnational networks of religious and civil society groups, progressive advocates in the U.S. today may strengthen their efforts by building bridges to those advocating on similar issues in other nations. (And a note to anyone who came upon this blog posting after googling “black helicopters”:I’m not talking about giving up sovereignty, or being bound by the views of foreigners – I’m talking about respectfully considering the wise and considered views of others before making our own minds up.)

The United States does not and cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the world, and any vision for American constitutional law in the coming decades must recognize this fact – not incidentally, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental part of understanding the nature of our society, our economy, and our government.

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