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Mailman School of Public Health

The Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health

intro | relationship to health | key standards, actors & venues | forms of work | role of the US | conclusion

The Role of the US in Human Rights

The US plays a key role in international human rights and in the United Nations, as well as regional organizations that address rights. The US is one of five countries that are permanent members of the UN Security Council. As a permanent member, the US holds the power of veto over any resolutions passed by the Security Council, which gives it significant influence over world affairs.

The US role in human rights

The US has been influential in the shaping of international human rights standards. The US participated in the drafting of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all the other major human rights treaties. The US has influenced human rights through its foreign policy, by withholding aid from or imposing trade embargos on nations that commit human rights violations. However, these policies have been applied inconsistently across various Administrations: the US Congress has voted to compile human rights records of all countries that receive US assistance, but it has not agreed to accept the same standard for its own behavior at all times.

Q: What recent issues that involve the US in international human rights norms can you think of?

Torture in Abu Ghraib

Rights to sexual and reproductive health services [“Global gag rule”]

Conditioning humanitarian assistance to further the US governments interest in armed intervention

Treaty ratification (formal international rights in the US)

  • The US has ratified five international human rights treaties, although it is one of two nations not ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • The US, as a member of the Organization of American States, has assumed other treaty-based human rights obligations

The US has ratified:

* The United States has ratified the ICCPR, however, the reservations, declarations and understandings have changed the document such that in its ratified form, it does not provide any additional human rights protections to US citizens beyond what are already provided in US law. (see glossary for more on reservations, declarations and understandings). FOR EXAMPLE: the ICCPR prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed by people under the age of 18. The US attached a reservation preserving the power to execute minors; this reservation is contested but still in place.

The US is also a state party to the Geneva Conventions, but not their Protocols (see Forced Migration Module).

However, the work of advocates in the US increasingly seek to use the treaties and other standards in social justice and public health work in the US

  • Public education (as when reproductive rights advocates do press releases using the ICPD standards to criticized the Administration’s restrictions on sexual and reproductive health information or access to abortion)
  • Lobbying federal and state officials
  • Building coalitions of interested NGOs and movements using a human rights framework, internally and trans-nationally
Q: What examples of recent US based human rights advocacy can you name?

Migrants rights organizations doing cross-border and internal advocacy

Service programs

designing and evaluating adolescent health services to meet their rights to sexual and reproductive health information and care


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