The United States has had, shall we say, a complicated history with human rights. While the foundation of our government and culture is based largely on the edict “all men are created equal” it has taken us a long time to fully come around to that way of thinking. Some might say we’re still not even close. (They’re probably right.) On an international scale, the United States represents itself as an example of freedom and equality. But while we may be steps ahead of some nations when it comes to recognition and protection of human rights, we have been historically reluctant to follow our own advice.
Bradley Simpson, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor of History and International Studies at Princeton, visited UAA recently to give a lecture under the heading “How Universal Are We? The Tortured U.S. Relationship With Human Rights.” He identifies as a historian and an activist, having worked with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on trying to change U.S. policy on human rights.
During his talk, Simpson gave a general overview of the United States’ dilemma with human rights recognition and it’s refusal to abide by the human rights standards of the international community. While very broad in scope (as one would have to be when covering many decades worth of policy and U.S. history in about an hour), Simpson was comfortable talking about some the nuances and hypocrisies of our country’s relationship with human rights.
He opened with a comment about the Obama administration’s troubled history with human rights, comparing the early promise of accountability with the current practices of the newly-re-elected President. Simpson said that if the first four years of Obama’s presidency “have shown us anything, it is that the long-standing U.S. ambivalence toward human rights continues apace.” Guantanamo Bay remains open and the U.S. military continues to employ commissions. He said the White House opposes attempts to seek accountability for past human rights abuses (presumably referring to previous presidential administrations).
Simpson didn’t mince words on the subject of drones. The Princeton professor said that the Obama administration has “adapted, and adopted, and expanded tactics” in terms of using drones to “carry out extrajudicial assassinations of alleged terrorism suspects. According to one recent report, [there have been] more than 4,600 people who have been killed without any judicial process whatsoever since Obama came into office in 2009.” (Dr. Simpson didn’t cite the name of the report, but I believe this data is what he was referring to.)
It was evident from the question and answer session after the lecture that not everyone agreed with his perspective, but he used it as an opportunity for dialogue. One student made the point that while he didn’t think the government should have the right to harm its citizens, he didn’t think that things like food and medical care should be considered human rights. Simpson said that he considered that an important observation, as Americans tended to differentiate between positive and negative rights. He explained negative rights are the right to not have the government do bad things to you: torture, false arrest, execution, etc. Positive rights are the good things that a government can do to help its citizens; things like provide water and food, healthcare, social security.
“These are things that a lot of Americans have traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge, and that states have been reluctant to acknowledge that they have an obligation to provide.”
Simpson said not every state can be expected to provide the same level of assistance and services to their citizens. There simply isn’t that equitable a distribution of resources. However:
“Governments do have an obligation to provide those [rights] insofar as they are able, and insofar as they have the resources to do so. This is essentially a political question, and it has to be resolved through political means. I think that democratic qualities can resolve these questions of whether or not, what level of public good the government has an obligation to provide, by elections. One can agree or disagree with the decisions that democratic elections or processes provide, but I think that we can accept this.”
This last part gets to the heart of Simpson’s lecture: we may not agree on the details, but we can all agree that the conversation couldn’t happen without the protection and enforcement of human rights. There could be no democracy without it. We have a responsibility not only to protect our own human rights, but to ensure that those rights are protected for everyone.
[Dr. Simpson’s lecture is available to listen to by podcast through UAA. Just follow this link.]