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'New' Human Rights: U.S. Ambivalence Toward the International Economic and Social Rights Framework


Hope Lewis


Northeastern University - School of Law

August 10, 2009

BRINGING HUMAN RIGHTS HOME: A HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES, Chapter 5, Cynthia A. Soohoo, Catherine Albisa and Martha F. Davis, eds., Praeger Publishers, 2007
Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 36-2009

Abstract:     
New Rights: U.S. Ambivalence Toward the International Economic and Social Rights Framework, appears as chapter 5 in Bringing Human Rights Home: A History of Human Rights in the United States (Cynthia A. Soohoo, Catherine Albisa, and Martha F. Davis, eds., Praeger, 2007). Economic and social rights (including rights to food, adequate housing, public education, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, fair wages, decent labor conditions, and social security) still occupy a second-class, outsider status in official United States domestic and foreign policy. This is no accident. The full recognition and implementation of such rights pose a direct threat. But that threat is not primarily to democracy or American values as some believe. Rather, because they demonstrate our system's failures to achieve equality, they threaten the deeply held belief that our country has already achieved a truly representative, human rights-based society.

This chapter provides an overview of American engagement with the international economic and social human rights system. It particularly explores how and why the U.S. engagement with international economic and social rights has been deeply ambivalent. The chapter begins by reviewing the international context in which U.S. attitudes about economic and social rights developed and early U.S. influences on the drafting and promulgation of foundational human rights instruments. However, this initial, and deep, U.S. engagement was soon undermined. Among other factors, racism (including the fear that human rights implementation would empower African-Americans and other minorities) contributed to the effective suspension of U.S. legislative engagement with internally applicable international human rights treaties for decades. Further, Cold War politics played a key role in the ultimate division of the UN's Covenant on Human Rights into two separate treaties. This period helped entrench the fear and distrust about the domestic application of human rights that still surfaces in some circles.

The advent of the Obama administration may mean a more human rights friendly domestic and foreign policy. It has already included the signing of a new human rights treaty. In light of the global economic crisis and efforts toward major health coverage reform, it remains to be seen whether calls for economic and social human rights in the U.S. will be seen as potential threats or as helpful tools.

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Date posted: August 13, 2009 ; Last revised: November 19, 2013

Suggested Citation

Lewis, Hope, 'New' Human Rights: U.S. Ambivalence Toward the International Economic and Social Rights Framework (August 10, 2009). BRINGING HUMAN RIGHTS HOME: A HISTORY OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES, Chapter 5, Cynthia A. Soohoo, Catherine Albisa and Martha F. Davis, eds., Praeger Publishers, 2007 ; Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 36-2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1446797

Contact Information

Hope Lewis (Contact Author)
Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )
400 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.northeastern.edu/law/faculty/directory/lewis.html
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