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On 50th Anniversary, U.S. Lags on Human Rights Issues

Human Rights Watch called the United States "a laggard" in human rights, and urged the U.S. government to make the issue a higher priority on its foreign policy agenda.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed fifty years ago, the U.S. government and its representative, Eleanor Roosevelt, could properly claim to have inspired the human rights movement. Fifty years later, the U.S. government stands in the way of further progress on human rights, said Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring organization based in New York.

"The United States likes to think of itself as a leader in the field of human rights," said Roth. "But on some of the key human rights issues of our time, the U.S. lags behind. That's a sad realization on this celebratory anniversary."

Roth called a system of international justice "the next big step" in human rights protection, and urged the U.S. government to drop its opposition to the proposed international criminal court. The court will investigate and prosecute future cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The treaty was passed this summer in Rome, with 120 nations approving the final text. The United States was one of only seven nations to vote against the treaty. Some U.S. government officials have threatened to campaign against the court if the treaty is not altered to significantly weaken the court's powers.

"We've won the first part of the battle: putting human rights on the agenda," said Roth. "But the world lacks instruments for human rights enforcement. The international criminal court will mark some important progress in that direction - if the United States doesn't undermine the court before it even gets started."

Roth also urged the U.S. government to publicly support efforts to extradite the Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain. "In this emerging system of international justice, Pinochet's arrest plays an historic role," said Roth. "Several European governments have openly supported Pinochet's extradition. Why won't Washington do the same?"

Roth noted that U.S. opposition has also slowed progress on an international protocol raising the minimum age to join a military force to 18. Although a large majority of countries support the protocol on child soldiers, the Clinton administration wants to limit the minimum age to seventeen, because the U.S. armed forces still recruit a small number of 17-year-olds every year. New research shows that 300,000 children worldwide are participating in armed combat. "If the U.S. weren't standing in the way, changing the minimum age to eighteen would be a relatively easy task," said Roth. "With U.S. opposition, countless more children are put at risk."

Roth also noted that the treaty against anti-personnel landmines was gaining signatories despite U.S. reluctance to join the ban. The Clinton administration announced this past year that the United States might sign the treaty in 2006. "The landmines treaty was negotiated without the United States and is moving forward without the United States," said Roth. "This experience shows that in important international law on human rights issues, the United States may simply be left behind."

In marking the fifitieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Roth noted that fifty years ago, governments did not routinely comment on each other's human rights performance, as they do now, and few watchdogs groups monitored and reported on human rights internationally. Roth also noted that the Declaration originally was applied largely for the benefit of political dissidents, but was now being interpreted to extend to many more social groups. "The world now understands that human rights extend to women, children, refugees, civilians in wartime, gays and lesbians, and ethnic and religious minorities," he said. "Fortunately, the effective scope of the Declaration has grown broader and more generous with time."

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