The United States has played a special role in the development and support of human rights ideas and practices. The Declaration of Independence, by which the American Colonies severed their allegiance to the British Crown in 1776, proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” No less important, the declaration asserted the right of a people to dissolve political bonds that had come to be oppressive.
With the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution), the world witnessed the first practical experiment in creating a government that would be judged by the extent to which it respected and protected the rights of its citizens. The earliest Americans did not speak of “human rights” per se, but they did speak of freedom and liberties. Many of the first Colonists came to the New World seeking religious freedom denied to them in 17th-century Europe. In forming their communities, they developed, over time, a sense of religious tolerance as well as a passion for self-government.
When the time came for the American Colonists to break away from Britain, they had a well-established body of law and custom that recognized freedom of speech, freedom of religious worship and freedom of assembly. To petition government, to have a jury trial, and to have a say in governing their own affairs were other cherished rights.
THE BILL OF RIGHTS
There were many who opposed the new Constitution in the beginning. Their consent to the document came only with the promise that a series of amendments would be added guaranteeing civil liberties -- liberties that already were part of most state constitutions.
The 10 amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution in 1791 and guaranteed, among other freedoms, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of the people peaceably to assemble, the right of people to petition the government for a redress of grievances, the right of people to not be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to due process of law and speedy and public trail by an impartial jury.
Since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, only 17 additional amendments have been made part of the Constitution.
EVOLUTION AND EXPANSION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Even with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, slavery and discrimination against American Indians, women and other groups continued for many years. But one of the features of American democracy is that self-correcting mechanisms like elections and courts tend to remedy the mistakes of earlier eras. The simple power of the idea of equality also has helped to correct social ills.
The United States also has a long record of positive international action on behalf of human rights. After World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson championed national self-determination and protection of minorities by the international community. After World War II, the United States devoted considerable effort and money to sustaining and rebuilding democracy in Europe and to establishing democracy in Japan. The United States was a leader in decolonization, granting independence to the Philippines in 1946. And with the end of the Cold War, the United States has emerged as a leader in multilateral human rights and humanitarian initiatives in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Bosnia and other countries.
ANNUAL REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES
The U.S. State Department is required by law each year to submit several comprehensive reports on human rights to Congress. They include:
• Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, a detailed assessment of the situation in countries around the world;
• Supporting Human Rights and Democracy, descriptions of what the U.S. government is doing to address the abuses noted in the country reports;
• International Religious Freedom Report, an examination of the degree to which people are free to worship as they please;
• Trafficking in Persons Report, a survey of modern-day slavery.
When completed, these reports are delivered to Congress and placed on the Internet at http://usinfo.state.gov/dhr/human_rights.html for dissemination worldwide.
This article, the third in a series of four, is adapted from a chapter in an upcoming IIP print publication, Human Rights in Brief. It is based on the essay “What Are Human Rights?” by Jack Donnelly, a professor of international studies at the University of Denver. Ruth Wedgwood, Edward B. Burling professor of international law and diplomacy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, served as adviser on this publication.