Published on Tuesday, April 5, 2005 by the Inter Press Service
Can International Law Save Civil Liberties?
by Niko Kyriakou
UNITED NATIONS -- A new book edited by noted civil rights attorney Ann Fagan Ginger suggests that the U.S. left should focus on using international law to stem the rights violations that are increasingly common side effects of Washington's ”war on terror”.
''Challenging U.S. Human Rights Violations Since 9/11'' (Prometheus Books, April 2005) includes entries by liberal luminaries and represents the first complete collection of the 183 alleged rights violations committed by the U.S. at home and around the world following the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.
Ginger, a quick-witted 79-year-old with glossy white hair, thick glasses and a red hat she has worn ever since Sep. 11, is executive director of the San Francisco-based Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, which has documented abuses since 1964.
The author of 24 books, she has argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and now teaches a course on peace law and human rights at San Francisco State University.
”But who I really am,” Ginger says, ”is I come from an English Quaker, Irish Catholic, Lithuanian Jewish, Midwestern socialist journalist family -- so I believe in the United Nations and the U.S. Constitution.”
Earlier this month, the city council of Berkeley, California, her home, voted unanimously to submit material from the book to the U.S. Office of the Inspector General, the U.S. State Department and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ginger explains that the book is also meant to inform the U.S. reports to the U.N. and the Organisation of American States on the condition of human rights in this country, which Washington is obliged to do periodically, under three conventions it has ratified.
The volume contains the texts of all the international laws the U.S. has ratified, including the U.N. Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty.
Combined with domestic law, these laws form a crisscrossing web of obligations that Ginger believes, if enforced, could prevent most kinds of human rights abuses by the U.S. government.
”The goal of this book is to take the issues we are working on and see that there is a common thread among all of them, and that is the basic law of the world, the law that the United States has agreed to.”
In a previous book called ”How to Use Your Civil Rights Laws after 9-11,” Ginger documented 80 cases since 1945 in which U.S. courts upheld human rights principles based on the U.N. charter or international treaties ratified by the U.S.
Speaking at the U.N. Church Center last week, Ginger reminded civil society leaders that Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. constitution says that, ”A treaty is the supreme law of the land.”
”That means the mayor of New York City is governed by the U.N. Charter, which is a treaty,” she said. ”That concept is not familiar to most conservatives. John Bolton (the ultra-nationalist nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador) surely doesn't understand it.”
Ginger advocates using international law to address issues like unlawful detention at Guantanamo, nuclear proliferation, the war in Iraq, and mass arrests of peaceful protesters, partly because she believes that ”the traditional system of hiring a lawyer and going to court to get justice on a human rights issue is not working effectively in the United States today.”
In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court took on cases that expanded the rights of women, African Americans and police detainees. But in recent years, the Supreme Court has not handed down as many broad decisions supporting human rights.
And even when cases are won against the government, that does not mean things will radically change, since the Supreme Court itself has no power to enforce its decisions.
Even after racially segregated schools were declared illegal by the Court in 1954, it took decades of community and media pressure before all local school districts complied.
Acknowledging these obstacles, Ginger's prescription is no different from what the U.N. does every day to encourage its member states to comply with international law: name and shame.
By reporting the facts clearly and simply, governments can be pressured into improving, Ginger said, citing recent reforms to indigenous laws in Canada and Australia, and the use of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to force legal reforms in 14 U.N. member states.
The reporting process can be mobilized to shame the U.S., Ginger explains, through the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG receives public complaints about government violations of domestic and international laws that the U.S. has ratified, and is required to report them every six months to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which can propose policy reform.
The laws needed to prevent U.S. human rights abuses are already in place, she says, there is just not enough pressure to enforce them.
”If these laws were part of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) or in the world trade agreements,” she says, ”they would be enforced absolutely by the U.S.”
Ginger believes that a better understanding of the historical relevance of the United Nations would help U.S. citizens re-engage.
”People have the misconception that there is no point in using international law or going to the United Nations because the U.N. can't enforce its decisions,” she said.
But the U.N. Charter ”wasn't just floated in from the sky.” Every section was written ”to insure there wouldn't be another war 20 years after World War Two as there had been after World War One; it wasn't a cheap trick.”
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