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Issues: U.S. Policy on Human Rights

U.S. human rights policy is based on a commitment to fundamental human rights as detailed in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, as well in as various regional human rights charters and covenants, and in the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, particularly the first ten Amendments known as the Bill of Rights.

Objectives of U.S. Human Rights Policy: The U.N. Universal Declaration was the first comprehensive document adopted by the international community to clearly delineate a broad range of human rights. It contains 30 articles -- ranging from the entitlement of every human being to freedom of speech to the right to life, liberty, and the security of person. The United States is committed to making the principles in the Universal Declaration a reality throughout the globe. The United States also has made human rights concerns an integral component of its foreign policy, and an important element in its bilateral relations with all countries. Each year, the State Department issues a comprehensive report detailing the status of human rights in countries around the world. The report is designed to focus world public opinion on human rights violations around the globe and to provide a snapshot of the status of human rights. It also is the basis for devising U.S. policies to advance human rights in those areas that the report indicates need particular attention. It is recognized, however, that the means by which human rights progress can be achieved necessarily must vary depending on circumstances currently prevailing in each country. The United States also supports a variety of U.N. and other multilateral human rights activities and institutions.

Foundation of Human Rights: Although no one particular form of society can ensure by itself that fundamental human rights principles are fully respected, and important human rights principles have been violated in democracies as well as under other forms of government, the United States believes that a democratic form of government is an important foundation upon which to build respect for human rights. That the United States still struggles to make its democracy -- now over 200 years old -- more true to the human and civil rights it propounds in its Constitution, however, is testimony to how difficult a task it is to achieve real and lasting human rights progress. Certainly, it is the case that a democratically-elected government is not enough to secure human rights without a civil society committed to the rule of law, and to fundamental freedoms, such as a free media and respect for private property.

Human Rights Accountability: The United States supports the various international organizations committed to the human rights principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration, including the work of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and the International Court of Justice and U.N. War Crimes Tribunals at The Hague. Also critical is the work of various non-governmental organizations concerned with human rights, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Since human rights is an integral component of U.S. foreign policy, the United States uses diplomatic initiatives, and where deemed appropriate, trade and aid measures, to advance human rights in particular countries under specific circumstances. The United States has supported, with specific assistance as well as in principle, the war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. One important milestone in the human rights community was the formation of these important international bodies. The last international war crimes tribunals were established just after World War II, most significantly at Nuremberg. But none have been established to deal with all the war crimes in all the wars since, until the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The United States believes an important precedent now has been firmly set.

The U.S. Record on Human Rights: The United States strongly believes that the work of ensuring human rights progress is never ending and that all nations, including our own, can and should improve their record. Although from the inception of the Republic, the United States adopted a Constitution that incorporated fundamental human rights into its provisions, the United States fell short of ensuring basic human rights for large numbers of its citizens, particularly African Americans, Native Americans, and all women throughout much of its history. The work of correcting these abuses continues, and it is significant that much of the progress that has been made to date has been a result of the work of volunteer organizations -- the myriad of civil rights organizations and churches, for example, in the case of working to ensure equality for African Americans. This underlines the fact that the work of building a just world is not just a duty, let alone a responsibility, of government alone. It is an obligation of every one, acting on the basis of individual conscience, or in collective effort with other individuals committed to the same worthy goals.

Additional information about U.S. policy on this issue may be found on the Internet at