This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Mass.), June 29, 1992.
Many United States citizens have no idea that for over two decades our country refused to ratify what surely is one of the most important international human rights documents of our time. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which establishes universal standards for the protection of basic civil and political liberties, is one of three documents that comprise the "International Bill of Rights."
In 1966, the ICCPR was adopted by the United Nations, but no action was taken by this country to ratify it until October 1977, at which time I signed the Covenant and submitted it to the Senate for advice and consent as required by our Constitution. The Senate gave this consent in April 1992, and in early June, George Bush signed the instrument of ratification. On June 8, 1992, the US, one of the key players in drafting the Covenant, finally ratified this important human rights treaty.
Because of this historic action, the US removes its name from the list of pariah countries, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, that have refused to accede to international human rights instruments. Along with the 102 other countries worldwide that have ratified or acceded to the ICCPR, our country will submit a report to the UN Human Rights Committee every five years, outlining measures taken by the US to implement the Covenant's provisions. In addition, US citizens will be able to serve on this committee, which has been meeting since 1976 to discuss the progress of countries that have ratified the Covenant. Before ratification, we were the only Western industrialized democracy absent from the committee.
Now that the US has taken this important step, however, it must not create doubts about its dedication and adherence to the Covenant by sanctimoniously picking and choosing among the provisions to which it will adhere. President Bush officially took exception to some Covenant provisions that conflict with domestic laws, including one on juvenile executions. The Bush administration wants to reserve the right to allow states to continue to execute juveniles. The only other nations that execute their young are Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. New legislation is now required to make US law conform with the Covenant and with international law on this and other points.
Ratification of the ICCPR provides an excellent opportunity for the US to strengthen civil liberty provisions in domestic legal codes and affirm that international standards, such as treaties, prevail as the law of the land. Ratification also induces our government to examine more closely the reasons for the upheaval that has shaken the US in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Racial discrimination, police brutality and the inadequate response from the federal government to this problem, and the economic and social marginalization of African-Americans and other minorities are issues that demand immediate attention.
The government should also give higher priority to human rights in formulating foreign policy. Why were human rights abuses by Iraq of no apparent interest to the US government before the invasion of Kuwait? It is of equal concern that the Bush administration recently proposed a very generous trade package for China, a country that has failed to improve its appalling human rights record.
The US has yet to ratify several other widely accepted human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. This Covenant, along with the ICCPR and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, completes the International Bill of Rights. Those who oppose the ratification of the second Covenant believe governments have no obligation to safeguard the rights of their citizens to jobs, education, housing, and an adequate standard of living. Recent events illustrate the tragic flaws of such thinking. Also awaiting action by the Bush administration and the Senate are the American Convention on Human Rights, which I signed in May 1977, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Even the Convention on the Rights of the Child has not yet been signed by the US.
By ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the US has taken one step forward, albeit at too slow a pace. It now is incumbent upon future administrations to accelerate this progress and take action to end our country's inconsistency and double standards in dealing with human rights at home and abroad. We can hardly clamor for justice in other parts of the world if we will not pledge to provide justice for our own citizens.
Jimmy Carter, president from 1977 through 1980, is chairman of the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation based at the Carter Center in Atlanta.