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USA Can't Point Finger at Others on Human Rights

This article originally appeared in USA TODAY, Dec. 10, 1992.

By Jimmy Carter and Dominique de Menil

As a nation, we have not always had the courage of our professed convictions when they have appeared to threaten our self-interest or convenience. Government actions and policies reveal disregard for human rights both at home and abroad. With the democratic revolution sweeping the world, human rights should be emphasized as a central element of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.

Having denounced human-rights abuses in various parts of the world, it is appropriate on this 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to examine the human-rights record of our own country. Our attitudes toward marginalized populations call into question the strength of our own commitment to the principles we impose as standards for others.

Today, the 44th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a day U.S. human-rights organizations typically condemn acts of abuse, torture or imprisonment of those demanding or defending political freedoms abroad.

At The Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation, our annual award in past years has honored organizations or individuals who have advanced the cause of human rights in the former Soviet Union, South Africa, Chile, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Israel and the occupied territories.

This recognition, like various economic and diplomatic sanctions by the international community, is valuable in thwarting oppression and protecting the lives of human-rights heroes. Today in Washington, the spotlight will be on two marginalized populations - refugees from overseas and ethnic minorities - who are fellow citizens. Representatives of the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami and the Native American Rights Fund of Boulder, Colo., will accept the 1992 Carter-Menil Human Rights Prize for advancing the cause of human rights in our own region.

With hindsight, we acknowledge the intolerance of early European explorers and some of their descendants who violated the way of life of Native Americans and their religions. In many ways, the problems facing Native Americans today are similar to those of earlier days, beginning in 1492.

Statistics continue to show the economic and social consequences of injustice toward Native American communities. The life expectancy on some reservations is less than that in some Third World countries. In health, education and employment, these first citizens of our country are invariably among the last to benefit from our nation's wealth, even from the vast resources of the very lands they occupied and cultivated for centuries before the European conquest.

U.S. laws and court decisions have weakened constitutional rights in Indian cases. Native Americans also have been shortchanged with regard to their cultural rights, and the challenge to their freedom of religion is a prime example. Although the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978, it has never been implemented with administrative policies.

The abuse of Native American rights is more subtle and more pervasive than the injustice of current policy toward Haitian refugees. The forced return of thousands of refugees to face repression without benefit of a routine legal hearing violates the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It states that everyone has the right to seek and to receive asylum from political persecution.

Since the overthrow of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, lawlessness has pervaded the cities and countryside of Haiti. Serious human-rights abuses are part of most Haitians' daily lives, not unlike the repression experienced under the Duvalier regime in the 1980s.

The U.S. government has claimed that Haitians are economic, not political, refugees - an argument our country refused to accept from Great Britain when it forcibly repatriated Vietnamese boat people. U.S. human-rights organizations document abuses against Haitian returnees that our government does not recognize. Perhaps because it lacks effective means of monitoring oppression, the U.S. government tends to minimize the problem.

The legality of the repatriation order is being challenged, and President- elect Clinton opposes the return of Haitians without a fair hearing. It is our hope that the new administration will be aggressive in its efforts to support a legitimate constitutional government in Haiti that will respect human rights and end the need for refugees to leave their country in such dangerous ways.

It is important that our country honor the promises of freedom and justice that symbolize the United States - a nation of immigrants, refugees and Native Americans. We must also acknowledge the growing interdependence of a world community facing similar problems involving refugees and native ethnic groups. High human-rights standards can be maintained in many other countries only if we Americans remain true to our ideals.

Former President Jimmy Carter and Dominique de Menil are chairman and president of the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation, a program of The Carter Center in Atlanta.The Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation was established in 1986 by Jimmy Carter and Dominique de Menil, founder and president of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, to promote protection of human rights throughout the world.

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