The Need for Human Rights in Times of Crisis
These are complex and painful times in the United States. There has never been a greater need for a human rights approach to address systemic racial inequality and racism. Police brutality and barriers to adequately access health services are two pressing byproducts of past and persisting racial discrimination in the United States. While sidelined in the national discourse, international law can be important in the fight against inequality and racial discrimination in the United States.
The killing of African-Americans by police is a tragic legacy of racial discrimination in the United States. Racial discrimination is also the root of prevailing unequal access to health services as well. This explains why the coronavirus pandemic has had a particularly egregious effect on African-Americans and other historically disadvantaged groups. African-Americans are greatly overrepresented in the figures of those infected and those who have died from COVID-19. They are also a large component of those historically impacted by poverty, lack of insurance, under-resourced health services, and those who perform essential frontline work in the United States. These are all factors that raise the possibility of infection and death from COVID-19.
The already deeply entrenched inequality in the United States has been exacerbated by COVID-19. The pandemic has resulted in widespread loss of life, illness, and human suffering. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of June 11, 2020, there have been 112,967 deaths due to the coronavirus in the United States and 1,994,283 total cases. This pandemic has also completely changed the way we live. We have been forced to close our schools and businesses, work from home, and communicate virtually. Job losses and unemployment have mounted. Health workers have been on the front lines risking their lives every day to fight for the survival of those affected.
While the United States was a leading country in the development of the current international human rights law framework, it has been greatly distant from the system it helped create. The language and promise of international human rights law have never fully permeated the social and legal discourse in the United States. The United States Constitution includes a Bill of Rights, and various social movements in the United States have been founded on civil rights. International law, however, has not been a leading feature of this advocacy. This is ironic since the United States was a leader in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948.
The promise of human rights is still best reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered a source of customary international law today, advancing in its preamble the principles of justice, equality, non-discrimination, dignity, and free speech. The United States has also ratified paramount human rights treaties relevant to our realities today, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the United Nations Convention against Torture. The human rights language has become part of world constitutions, legislation, and policies. However, the United States is isolated from the language and international standards that could be instrumental in redressing prevailing inequality.
International human rights law was adopted as an important source of hope and resolution for moments like this. It seeks to build a world guided by the principles of life, equality, human dignity, and non-violence. The concept of human rights emanated from World Wars with the goal of restraining the repressive activity of states and their officials towards individuals. It calls for a long-lasting change in police conduct and culture, mandating the exceptional use of force, and limiting its use to only when necessary and with strict proportionality. It also demands the end of discrimination based on race, sex, gender, and other factors, and the grant of justice and reparations when these incidents occur. Human rights standards also require all to have prompt and adequate access to the health services they need and key information to facilitate the exercise of human rights. Free speech is a cornerstone right mandating the respect and protection of the activity of both protesters and human rights defenders. It requires political leaders that rule with empathy, humanity, a desire to bring unity and peace, and truth. These can be helpful for rebuilding a nation founded on human dignity, peace, and free from all forms of discrimination and violence.