The United States has played a special role in the development and support of human rights ideas and practices. The Declaration of Independence, by which the American colonies severed their allegiance to the British Crown in 1776, proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” No less important, the declaration asserted the right of a people to dissolve political bonds that had come to be oppressive.
With the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, the world witnessed the first practical experiment in creating a government that would be judged by the extent to which it respected and protected the rights of its citizens. Rights, thus, are often seen by Americans as a defining feature of their national heritage. The earliest Americans did not speak of “human rights” per se, but they did speak of freedom and liberties. Many of the first colonists came to the New World seeking religious freedom denied to them in 17th century Europe. In forming their communities, they developed over time a sense of religious tolerance as well as a passion for self-government. When the time came for the American colonists to break away from Britain, they had a well-established body of law and custom that recognized freedom of speech, freedom of religious worship, and freedom of assembly. To petition government, to have a jury trial, and to have a say in governing their own affairs were other cherished rights.
These were all among the values underlying the Declaration of Independence—an excerpt of which appears below—in 1776. Its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, later became the third president of the United States.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable [inalienable] Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its Powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The Bill of Rights
In 1787, representatives of 12 of the original 13 American states met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to begin drafting the U.S. Constitution. They crafted a document of compromise and representative democracy that has adapted well to changing circumstances for more than 200 years.
There were many who opposed the new Constitution in the beginning. Their consent to the document came only with the promise that a series of amendments would be added guaranteeing civil liberties—liberties that already were part of most state constitutions. Thus, the 10 amendments below, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution in 1791. Since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, only 17 additional amendments have been made part of the Constitution.
- Amendment I – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
- Amendment II – A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
- Amendment III – No Soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
- Amendment IV – The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. …
- Amendment V – No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury … nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
- Amendment VI – In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
- Amendment VII – In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved. …
- Amendment VIII – Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
- Amendment IX – The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
- Amendment X – The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Human Rights Problems
There are, of course, less attractive sides to the U.S. heritage. Slavery was an accepted practice in the southern states during the first 75 years of the American republic, and racial discrimination in schools, public accommodations, and social practices was the norm for much of its second century. The American Indians, as they were then called, were forced to move westward, losing their homes, their lands, and often their lives. Women were denied the right to vote in elections, the right to serve on juries, and even the right to hold property as a wife. But one of the features of American democracy is that self-correcting mechanisms like elections and courts tend to remedy the mistakes of earlier eras. The simple power of the idea of equality has also helped to correct social ills.
During the Cold War, the United States supported some brutal military dictatorships, providing them with financial and military support so long as they supported U.S. economic and geopolitical interests. More recently, the United
States has been criticized in the wake of 9/11 for its treatment of some suspected terrorists, as well as for isolated instances of prisoner abuse by the U.S. military during the Iraq War. The boundaries of rights in instances of conflicts involving terrorists — who, after all, are out to destroy everybody’s rights — are still being debated in civilized societies.
There are concerns in some quarters about the use of the death penalty and the adequacy of legal representation in death penalty cases, as well as the number of minority males incarcerated in prisons for criminal offenses. There are debates about the disenfranchisement of convicted felons after they have served their sentence, and discussions about the rights of sexual minorities. Again, one sees that the power of an idea, such as equality, generates a continuing debate.
But the United States also has a long record of positive international action on behalf of human rights. After World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson championed national self-determination and protection of minorities by the international community. After World War II, the United States devoted considerable effort and money to sustaining and rebuilding democracy in Europe and to establishing democracy in Japan. The United States was a leader in decolonization, granting independence to the Philippines in 1946. And with the end of the Cold War, the United States has emerged as a leader in multilateral human rights and humanitarian initiatives in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Bosnia, and other countries.
Keeping Congress Informed
The U.S. State Department is required by law each year to submit several comprehensive reports on human rights to Congress. They include:
- Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, a detailed assessment of the situation in countries around the world;
- Supporting Human Rights and Democracy, descriptions of what the U.S. government is doing to address the abuses noted in the country reports;
- International Religious Freedom Report, an examination of the degree to which people are free to worship as they please;
- Trafficking in Persons Report, a survey of modern-day slavery. When completed, these reports are delivered to Congress and placed on the Internet for dissemination worldwide.
Abroad, American self-righteousness and an American willingness to act unilaterally have provoked occasional resentment, even among those who have shared the values underlying American policies. It is not difficult to point out where the United States falls short of its ideals. Nonetheless, the United States today, as two centuries ago, is a world leader in the ongoing struggle for human rights. And, while the ideas are widely accepted, the struggle to implement them continues globally.
(The article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, Human Rights in Brief.)