Today marks the 60th celebration of World Human Rights Day, the date when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. As the first global expression of the rights to which all people are entitled, the declaration remains one of the 20th century’s greatest accomplishments.
But how far have we come in realizing the declaration’s promise? This year’s Human Rights Day is dedicated to combating discrimination, a theme that resonates deeply with America’s own struggle for equality.
Uneven and halting though it has been, the fight against discrimination in the United States has made major strides, thanks to the courageous efforts of those who stood for equal treatment regardless of one’s race, gender, or sexual orientation. The American judiciary, in particular, has been a vital actor in this effort, often striking down discriminatory legislation before the tide of public opinion followed. Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that ruled “separate but equal” unconstitutional, came almost ten years before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. And it may be surprising to recall that the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision granting gay couples the right to marry, a revolutionary decision at the time, is only seven years old. The progress that has been made since that decision—legally and in the court of public opinion—is enormous.
But around the world important judicial decisions condemning discrimination and ordering states to combat it are being ignored. Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Spanish government violated the rights of an American-born woman named Rosalind Williams, when the police singled her out for a random identity check while she was waiting at a train station. When Williams asked why she was being stopped, the police told her that they were under orders to check the identity of people “like her” because of illegal immigration from Africa. (Sound familiar?) The Committee ordered that Spain publicly apologize to Williams and take general measures to end such racial profiling but, to date, nothing has been done.
Williams's case is not an isolated one. In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Dominican Republic to end racial discrimination in its citizenship policy, which was particularly targeting Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. But instead of complying with the court’s order, the Dominican Republic’s laws have become more—not less—restrictive, including a constitutional amendment that directly undermines the Court’s ruling.
And in Europe, a landmark judgment finding that the segregation of Roma within Czech schools violated the European Convention on Human Rights has gone almost entirely unheeded. The “special schools” into which the Roma are shunted have been renamed, but the segregation persists.
The commitment to abide by a court’s judgment is crucial to the integrity of any legal system, domestic or international. We can have the most persuasive judgments in the world but without implementation the situation of those who should be helped by a court’s ruling does not improve.
Some argue that the fact that these are international courts—established by treaty and dependent on state cooperation for their enforcement—means that they are weak and ineffectual by design. And it is true that genuine and complete implementation is one of the most challenging problems that the international human rights system confronts.
But it need not be this way. The states that have consented to these bodies—113 to the UN Human Rights Committee, 47 to the European Court of Human Rights, and 25 to the Inter-American Court—have undertaken a legal obligation to abide by their decisions. These courts, which are often the last hope for people whose national systems have failed them, matter precisely because states have said that they do. It is up to them to live up to their own commitments.
Governments know this. They know that these courts need to be better resourced, so that they can conduct more regular follow-up of their decisions. They know that there should be a designated agent within each political system—preferably at the legislative level—responsible for implementing the judgments to which they are bound. And they know that national courts must consider these decisions as part of their own domestic law going forward.
The United States, while not a part of these systems, can also do its part to bolster implementation. Already, the Obama administration has signaled that it will condition its release of financial assistance for law enforcement efforts on Mexico’s compliance with Inter-American Court decisions. This is a policy that could be extended to other countries as well.
Moreover, the United States has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women or the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, both of which are important tools in the global fight against discrimination. Ratification of these treaties would send a powerful message that America joins the rest of the world in affirming the rights of all people to equal treatment.
For in the end, human rights are civil rights. They are women’s rights. They are the rights of the disabled, the elderly, and of gays and lesbians around the world. America must help make good on the promise that we celebrate today.