Toward a Credible and Universal Concept of Rights: How Racial Injustice in America Affects U.S. Human Rights Practices Abroad

The Murder of George Floyd on May 25th by a white Minneapolis police officer did not happen in a vacuum. It was not an aberration in an “otherwise functioning” justice system. Countless black men and women in America have suffered similar fates at the hands of a criminal justice apparatus that often sees black people as material threats before seeing them as human. Floyd’s death is just the most recent symptom implicating a justice system in the United States that many experts and activists consider out of control, and his legacy is just one aspect of deeper structural racism that has bled into every fiber of America since its founding. As many scholars of color have noted, racism in America does not reflect American systems that are broken: instead, racism reflects a central tenant of a process designed from its inception to protect white interests.

U.S. constitutional values upholding human equality and equal opportunity are the cornerstone of American democracy. These are further imbued in the U.N. Bill of Human Rights, which includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As a founding member of the United Nations, the United States is obligated to uphold these instruments as foundational pillars of its international policy on human rights.

For decades, both Republican and Democrat administrations have professed commitments to these fundamental rights in the relationships Washington has maintained with other nations. Our entire foreign policy order is guided by U.S. and internationally-recognized principles that are premised on human rights, equality, and a global democratic community in which every individual, regardless of his, her, or their identity, can readily participate and have influence.

Unfortunately, how our foreign policy has been applied in practice indicates that we often radically depart from those principles — with our foreign policy in the Muslim world making this discordant approach most apparent. Such policies have been undergirded by overtly militaristic approaches to highly complex international conflicts that are socioeconomic and political in nature, availing themselves far less of diplomatic, humanitarian, and rights-focused solutions.

To identify a few salient examples over the last three decades, the United States in large part employed a human rights rationale to launch unsuccessful military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. As a result, millions of innocent people have been displaced or made refugees, seriously injured, and killed. These military campaigns have also geopolitically destabilized large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa, helping to expand rather than eliminate terrorist activities, and have inadvertently made the militant syndicates of anti-state political movements more appealing. As this transpires, human rights activists continue to criticize the overwhelming and unyielding bipartisan support from Congress that favors Israel’s security at the expense of Palestinians’ self-determination rights, and both Republican and Democrat policymakers have sanctioned the sale of U.S. weapons to governments in the Middle East and North Africa that are gross abusers of human rights – including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco, and Israel.

Even policy strategies intended to minimize military recourse have led to outcomes that contravene U.S aspirations for humanitarianism and human rights. Broad-based sanctions measures against Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, for instance, have failed to uproot government regimes deemed inimical to the United States. Instead, inflexibly structured sanctions directly and indirectly punish the citizens in those countries by constraining access to global capital, complicating the provision of humanitarian assistance, and exacerbating currency inflation that can make basic necessities prohibitively expensive for the poor.

Countries considered adversarial to U.S. values have taken close note of America’s deep failure to provide racial justice, often conjoining their criticisms of American racism with critiques of the United States’ inconsistent application of human rights commitments abroad. Over the last few weeks, protests over police brutality in the United States have been used as political fodder by the same governments we frequently criticize for systemic human rights violations.

“The protestors’ voice must be heard. In doing so, suppressing the suffering Americans & #PressFreedom must URGENTLY be stopped.” This tweet, from the Iranian Foreign Ministry, is just one of many statements issued by the Iranian Government over the years that revolve around racial injustice in America. It has been a major component in Tehran’s strategy to discredit Washington’s claim that U.S. human rights principles are in fact principled.

The Chinese Government has also jumped on the bandwagon. At a time of heightened international scrutiny of China’s role in the COVID-19 crisis, and as Beijing seeks to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, China’s state news outlet, CCTV, has broadcast round-the-clock updates and analyses highlighting racial problems in the United States. CCTV provides prime time commentary arguing that U.S. human rights values are hypocritical, while many Chinese internet users have taken to social media to express outrage and concern over the inhumane treatment of African Americans and the extent of police brutality in the United States.

The Trump Administration’s recent use of force against peaceful protestors neatly folds already prevalent criticisms of U.S. human rights values into our own national conversation on state-driven racial oppression in America.

On June 11th, a reporter challenged U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to explain America’s credibility on human rights at a time when protestors were being met with excessive force by federal and local law enforcement. Pompeo responded that the question was fundamentally flawed for “assuming there is a moral equivalency” between authoritarian countries that “repress their people and bludgeon their people” and a country like the United States, where journalists were able to directly question Pompeo about government actions.

Yet the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented over 400 instances in which journalists covering the protests were threatened, physically attacked, and/or arrested by U.S. law enforcement. Replying directly to Pompeo, Human Rights Watch remarked that “violations of human rights are violations of human rights, whether they occur in an authoritarian regime or in a democracy. International human rights law places obligations on the United States that are not dismissed by the situations in other countries.”

The increasing gap between the United States’ professed doctrines on human rights and its implementation of those doctrines augurs poorly for the country’s legitimacy before international institutions, and will make bilateral and multilateral collaboration more challenging. Other parties involved in global human rights efforts will question our intentions when our human rights values are inconsistently applied both internationally and at home. It will also make it more difficult for companies and civil society organizations to cite U.S human rights values as a model when encouraging their international peers to advance human rights best practices and standards. Furthermore, it will reduce the credibility of the U.S. Government, U.S. companies, and U.S. human rights organizations that are involved in high stakes dialogue through their membership in international human rights multi-stakeholder initiatives.

Rather than projecting American values through the lens of military power, the United States and U.S.-based entities should pursue a dual-pronged human rights model that seeks complete equity for marginalized communities within its borders while positioning rights at the very center of its political transactions abroad.

There are already many notable examples where the United States has played a positive role in globally influencing democratic change, empowering and inspiring activists and civil society, and promoting an expansive vision for human rights that emphasizes equality for all under democratic and accountable rule of law.

On balance, however, U.S. human rights values and policies have been increasingly ensconced in global affairs with little consideration for how they are applied to historically-marginalized U.S. citizens. If the United States is serious about improving the credibility of its international human rights platform, it should first consider meaningful and effective ways that it can begin to fully dismantle structural racism in America.

From a business perspective, U.S. companies should remain cognizant that the rule of law protecting human rights is the very same rule of law that protects contracts and serves as the underpinning of global business enterprise. Likewise, interpretations of obligations under the U.N. Bill of Human Rights have evolved to encompass more specific responsibilities for companies, namely through the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Growing awareness of racial injustice and how it is potentially reinforced or amplified by commercial enterprises may eventually inspire new expectations under the Guiding Principles with respect to a human rights due diligence process that is more expressly designed to eliminate racism in the company supply chains that flow throughout the United States and beyond.

Mustering their own responses, many corporations have made significant strides over the last few weeks to acknowledge racism – publicly recognizing and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and rapidly instituting a variety of measures that seek to begin addressing racism at a systemic level within corporate America. Activists, however, are likely to expect more substantial changes to company operations. Mounting pressure from a consumer base that has become more socially responsible over the last couple decades may intersect with such activism to demand new human rights best practices that transform extant international standards – such as the Guiding Principles – to compel companies to more specifically address and remedy racial inequity as part of their human rights risk mitigation and due diligence strategies.

With respect to consumers themselves, the entire flow of products in supply chains is designed to anticipate and form to their purchasing behaviors. Just as governments and corporations must confront racial injustice by serving as agents of institutional change, so too must consumers consider how they can make individual changes by applying socially responsible principles to the way they buy things. Whose work went into the making of that product that you need or desire? Is there credible evidence it is manufactured with inputs that disproportionately exploit black, brown, and other marginalized workers? Globalization has thoroughly interlinked consumers, supply chains, and government policies, and the ethics of consumption have major implications for human rights across the globe. Americans are among the biggest consumers per capita in the world. That effect means Americans have as many choices as they have responsibilities, and the way they consume can have a profound impact on racial justice — whether they are aware of this or not.

Before any nation can have the moral certitude to insist on a human rights-centered foreign policy abroad, it must confront and adequately redress claims of abuse, inequity, and unfair treatment against those at the margins, within its own borders. The death and destruction of black lives in America – having never been truly confronted – will require unprecedented energy and commitments from every echelon and institution in the United States. This means civil society organizations, both federal and local governments, corporations, and consumers of corporate products — working with and at the direction of black community leaders — will all be required to honestly reflect on their potential contributions to racial (in)justice and fundamentally change the way they operate.

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