Human Rights Should Not be Graded on a Curve

President Barack Obama, speaks at the Human Rights Campaign national dinner, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Sarah Paoletti is the Practice Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Transnational Legal Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She currently serves as the Senior Consultant for the U.S. Human Rights Network.

This November, the United States Administration will take to the world stage to discuss its own human rights history and its ongoing efforts towards realizing a "more perfect" Union.

Its appearance is part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process in which all U.N. member nations participate every four years. In anticipation of that appearance, on August 20, 2010, the U.S. Department of State submitted a report on human rights in the United States to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

While many applaud the U.S. for re-engaging with the international community on the range of pressing human rights concerns of this era, some sectors of society believe the U.S. policy of exceptionalism that marred the country's international reputation over the past decade should continue, while others would like to see the administration more fully acknowledge the depth and breadth of human rights concerns within the U.S. and the actions it plans to take in response.

Last month, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer added her voice to the administration's critics who argue that the U.S. should continue with a game of smoke and mirrors before the international community, asserting our dominance while refusing to engage in meaningful and transparent dialogue about the full spectrum of rights issues confounding countries across the globe.

In a letter to Secretary Clinton, she expressed "concern and indignation" at the U.S. report's mention of Arizona's SB 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration law, calling upon the administration to remove all references to SB 1070 and the U.S. Department of Justice's court action seeking to enjoin portions of the law. Gov. Brewer contends it is "downright offensive that the U.S. State Department include the State of Arizona and S.B. 1070 in a report to the United Nations Council on Human Rights, whose members include such renowned human rights 'champions' as Cuba and Libya." Others have criticized the U.S. for including reference to concerns raised by men and women who labor in the shadows, often outside the protections of formal rights to collective bargaining and, in some cases, minimum wage and overtime protections.

The criticisms all strike a common tune: the United States has a superior human rights record to that of the most grievous human rights offenders, and therefore it need not, in fact should not, participate in an international dialogue in which such countries also participate. But their arguments are based on the misguided notion that human rights are relative, and that by seeking to hold ourselves accountable, we are somehow legitimizing others' lack of accountability rather than stepping forward as an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Human rights are not relative, and our record of achievement cannot be graded on a curve.

Even though the U.S. compares more favorably to Cuba and Libya in its respect for core civil and political rights, we do not get an automatic "A+."

A country's human rights record should not be graded against others, but against universally accepted human rights standards - standards the U.S. has historically played a key role in developing. And when we view our grade in absolute terms, rather than on a curve, when we compare our actual performance with the promise of dignity and respect for all set forth in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and consistent with the principles and values set forth in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, we know we have more work to do before we deserve that "A."

The United States stands at an historic crossroads, and the Obama administration's State Department has recognized that to regain our role as a world leader, we need to re-engage with the international community around human rights. And for that engagement to be meaningful, we must be willing to address the full set of civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights that are central to a functioning and vibrant democracy.

We have much to be proud of as a nation. Our reliance on the judicial system to resolve constitutional debates and rationally respond to divisive and controversial legislation such as SB 1070 in Arizona, is one such example.

And, as we saw in Pennsylvania last week, when the federal Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge's permanent injunction on Hazelton, Pennsylvania's controversial local ordinances aimed at restricting immigration - the first of such ordinances around the country - the courts play a pivotal role in resolving heated and divisive issues through the execution of its duties to uphold the constitution, the system of government established by the Founders, and the rights they set forth to protect.

To admit that the U.S. could do more to improve upon its human rights record, so long as that admission is followed with a plan of action, can only serve as a valuable example to the rest of the world community and will strengthen the nation, not weaken it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
By Sarah Paoletti:
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