By Rep. Cynthis McKinney
n 1998, the world will mark an important milestone in the struggle for international human rights — the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). However, nearly 50 years after the initiation of this historic accord, there is little cause for celebration here in the United States.
U.S. officials regularly pay lip service to human rights and often castigate Third World leaders for not upholding the internationally accepted standards embodied in the UDHR. With each new international crisis, Congress and the White House take turns staking out the moral high ground by issuing high-browed statements and passing symbolic resolutions about the importance of respecting human rights. Meanwhile, these very same officials turn a blind eye when it comes to human rights abuses at home.
Such criticism of others on human rights seems inappropriate at best, and hypocritical at worst, when we consider that, according to Amnesty International, "the USA is a country with a persistent and serious pattern of human rights abuses." That the United States address its human rights challenges head-on is vital to American credibility and leadership abroad. Moreover, it is simply the right thing to do.
As we have seen throughout our history, American democracy is a work in progress. As we look to protect the will of the majority, we must also safeguard the rights of minorities with equal vigilance and determination. The individual, civil and economic rights of minorities are increasingly under attack. Patterns of institutionalized racism continue to plague our society.
A pattern of police brutality has taken hold in many of America's cities, and race is almost always a factor. In cases where Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities are suspects, the tendency is to shoot first and ask questions later. The case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant tortured and sodomized with a plunger by four New York police officers, illustrates just how far this trend has gone.
At the same time, we must reverse the discriminatory trends in our judicial system. The reality of an unfairly applied death penalty, in which black men are 10 times more likely to be executed than whites, is chilling. At the same time, prisons are slowly being handed over to large conglomerate multinational corporations. In the name of "efficiency," this system which has no interest in either reform or rehabilitation has given rise to an inherently sadistic industry which profits from the incarceration of our young, mostly Black, men.
Lastly, if we are to lead the world in the area of promoting human rights and democracy, we must do so in a consistent and even-handed manner. We continue to embrace many of the world's most repressive dictators in the name of some immediate strategic objective. At the same time, the United States has often stood by human rights abusers when they were our "allies," even when faced with near total isolation in the international community. Worse still, we reward some of the world's most notorious human rights abusers with lucrative trade deals. In this way, not only do we undermine the very principles we claim to uphold, but we also facilitate and further entrench human rights abuses abroad.
The need for a domestic human rights monitoring and educational effort is clear and long overdue.
In the fall of 1998, Amnesty International will begin to address that need with the launch of its USA Campaign, the first-ever national human rights effort focused solely on U.S. compliance with and accountability toward international human rights standards. As we all know, action must begin at the local level. That is why in 1998, in coordination with Amnesty International, I will convene the first of what I hope will become a model for other cities and towns across America — the country's first "human rights awareness hearing" in Decatur, Georgia.
This "town hall" meeting will bring together human rights activists, community leaders and ordinary citizens to candidly discuss abuses and ways to safeguard human rights in their community. I have urged my colleagues in the House of Representatives to hold similar hearings in their districts or states.
The time has come to look critically at ourselves as a society and to address our shortcomings in the area of human rights. The United States cannot continue to make bold proclamations about human rights abuses abroad while ignoring our own. When it comes to human rights, the United States must lead by example.
Rep. McKinney (D-Ga.) serves on the House International Relations and National Security Committees, and is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.