September 20, 2013 at 6:11 pm

The Steady Push for International Human Rights

Bert Lockwood

If it had signed the various international human rights treaties put forth since two world wars dominated the 20th century world stage, “the United States would be a more generous nation today.”

Yet many of the countries that did sign the treaties haven’t enforced them, continued Bert B. Lockwood, Director of the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights at the University of Cincinnati Law School and editor-in-chief of Human Rights Quarterly.

Lockwood narrated the profound relationships between U.S. constitutional law and international human rights law in his Constitution Day lecture to an overflow crowd of more than 200 students and faculty.

Fears about National Sovereignty

It was the international human rights discussions that arose after the war to end all wars that not just helped undermine the League of Nations with fears about national sovereignty—but also launched a powerful international dialogue that continues today.

Lockwood wove together a series of themes—U.S. constitutional law, the founding events of U.S. history, and major political milestones of the 20th century.

Speaking from a podium in the open-air Scripps auditorium, he took the audience back to the time of the Allied victory in the European Theater during World War II.

Around the table: Winston Churchill, with a commitment to maintaining Great Britain’s colonial empire; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a nation unwelcoming, and worse, to its returning segregated troops; and Joseph Stalin, with millions in labor camps and hundreds of thousands executed. It was China, whose people had been enslaved and brutalized by Japan in the Pacific Theater, which pushed for the international human rights treaty.

When the United Nations discussion arrived in San Francisco in 1945, a host of non-governmental organizations continued to push for a human rights treaty and an emphasis on human rights in the United Nations charter.

The UN Charter and the Human Rights Declaration

Roosevelt had a problem—a Senate led by Southern Democrats who were separatists. A Senate that the U.S. Constitution said must vote on all treaties, with a two-thirds vote required for approval. John Foster Dulles, who would later serve as Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower, came up with the solution, Lockwood said.

Into Article II of the UN Charter in 1945 went language that said the United Nations could not interfere in domestic matters of member nations—“Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state….” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would follow several years later.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, was the result of the experience of the Second World War. With the end of that war, and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of that conflict happen again. World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere,” according to the UN website.

Bert Lockwood. Photos by Katelyn Preston '14.

Bert Lockwood. Photos by Katelyn Preston ’14.

‘A Bold Decision, Never Enforced’

The result, Lockwood said, was “a bold declaration about human rights and freedoms” and a U.N. charter that “made sure they would not be enforced.”

As Lockwood explained, Roosevelt appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to chair the United Nations Human Rights Commission in order “to define what do you mean by fundamental freedom. She played a key role in the universal declaration of human rights. She included our own Bill of Rights plus articles about standard of living rights.” He noted, “it recognized that if you don’t have your basic needs met, then other rights pale by comparison.”

For example, Article 25 of the Human Rights Declaration says, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

While the spirit of protection for social, economic, and cultural rights has made limited inroads in the United States, Lockwood said that only one part of the Declaration made it into U.S. law, and that one exception was enormously expensive—the GI Bill of Rights, providing benefits for veterans returning home from World War II.

Brown v. Board of Education

When it came to Brown v. Board of Education, Lockwood argued, “the United Nations human rights charter played an uncredited role.”

“It would not have been permissible for the court to say our constitution won’t deal with this situation, but we can rely on this United Nations treaty,” Lockwood noted, given that the United States had engineered the Article II language whereby a nation’s domestic laws took precedence over the UN’s charter.

“So the Supreme Court reinterprets due process under the 5th Amendment and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. It reads them differently,” said Lockwood, who authored a chapter on “Toward the Economic Brown: Economic Rights in the United States and the Possible Contribution of International Human Rights Law” in the book World Justice? U.S. Courts and International Human Rights (Westview, 1991).

By Lori Bauer
Director of Communications, College of Arts & Sciences, Ohio University

Photos by Katelyn Preston ’14

One Comment

  1. I will begin with a quote from Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”

    Since the dawn of time men have forever sought ways to control each other. The United Nations you speak so fondly of is just another example.

    The secretary general at the founding conference of the U.N. in SanFransico was Alger Hiss. At the time a secret member of the Commmunist Party operating in the United States, later to be exposed. The co-author of the founding conference was Andrie Gromyko, a well known Communist Party leader in the U.S.S.R. Sixteen members of the United States government who voted in favor of adopting the U.N charter were also secret Communists along with Hiss. These facts alone, tell most of the story.

    Article 25 of the U.N. charter also states: “the members of the U.N. agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the security counsel in accordance with the present charter”
    This is a very justfiable reason for the fear about national sovereignty that you mentioned. In fact, based on article 25, any U.S. represenative that voted in favor of adopting the charter should have been tried for treason, because it usurps the Constitution the they swore to uphold.

    All the good things you speak of in the universal declaration of human rights (many of which are taken from our bill of rights) are nullified by the fact that the document states: “in the exercise of his or her rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject to such limitations as are determined by law”
    This means as quickly as the U.N. gives you your rights, they can take them away, for whatever reason.

    Our Declaration and Constitution clearly state: We are endowed by our creator with our human rights and they are unalienable, and Congress shall make NO law to the contrary.
    Big difference.

    I can see from your photos you are an older gentleman, and I’m not sure if you are a socialist, although many of your comments lead me to believe you are sympathetic to that mentality. I would be curious to know what lead you away from the ideas of freedom, liberty, and individuality; or have you always been a collectivist right from the beginning.

    All the things you state in your paragraph on article 25, housing, medical care, old age payments; no one has a “right” to any of these things. What every person has a right to is thier dignity as a human being, freedom from coersion from government and all other human beings, and the right to worship and pursue his or her interests as they see fit without interference. Nothing else.
    The Agenda 21 behind the U.N. and the utopia some think it will bring is nothing less than a road to hell. As proven everytime these socialist ideas have been implemented…..anywhwere.
    We have well over 100 years of history speaking to us loud and clear if we will just listen to it.

    I hope you have an open mind and will re-consider what it is that you are supporting.

    God Bless………………

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