Close to Home: Social Justice Activism and Human Rights

7 Pages Posted: 2 Jun 2017

See all articles by Cynthia Soohoo

Cynthia Soohoo

City University of New York Law School

Date Written: June 1, 2008


In commentary and scholarly articles, the words “U.S. human rights policy” invariably seem to be followed by the word “exceptionalist.” This exceptionalism is reflected in the history of American ratification of human rights treaties and the treatment of ratified treaties under domestic law. The United States has ratified only three of the eight core human rights treaties. The United States has attached reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) to the three human rights treaties it has ratified, whittling down the substantive obligations it will accept in an attempt to make its international obligations roughly equivalent to what existing domestic law already requires. And -- for good measure -- the United States has declared the treaties non-self-executing as a matter of domestic law.

While the narrative of U.S. exceptionalism is both accurate and compelling, it only tells part of the story. A narrow focus on the policies of the federal government and its record on human rights treaty ratification necessarily fails to capture the role that social justice movements play in building acceptance for new normative rights arguments that over time are reflected in changes in law, either through evolving interpretation of existing law or new legislation and policies. By looking beyond the status of treaty ratification for the sites of domestication of international human rights standards, we can get a fuller picture of human rights advocacy in the United States. Within our federal system these sites are numerous and include state legislatures, city councils, national organizations of local officials, and courts. In some instances, such as human rights litigation brought pursuant to the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), legislation explicitly contemplates the incorporation of international human rights law into domestic law, and courts have tried to articulate how this should occur. In other instances, mobilized activists and citizens use human rights standards to engage in a dialogue to inform, expand, and contest domestic definitions of rights. Recognition that there are what Judith Resnik has described as “multiple ports of entry” for human rights law helps us to understand the project that American lawyers and activists undertake when they engage in human rights advocacy.

This introductory essay to a special issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review discusses the history of human rights advocacy in the United States. It traces the roots of United States exceptionalism, discusses the political and institutional factors that have led to a renewed interest in human rights domestically, and provides insight into the advocacy benefits that human rights strategies can offer in particular cases.

Keywords: Human Rights, Social Movements, U.S. Exceptionalism

Suggested Citation

Soohoo, Cynthia, Close to Home: Social Justice Activism and Human Rights (June 1, 2008). Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Cynthia Soohoo (Contact Author)

City University of New York Law School ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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