Submitted by Marvin Miller
Every December, the anniversaries of the adoption of the U.S. Bill of Rights (Dec. 15 1791) and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10 1948) remind us to think about how human rights have fared in our country and in the world. Have they advanced or deteriorated during the past year? Have they been advancing or deteriorating in recent years?
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, but the religious phrase “In God we trust” was made the official motto of the United States by an act of Congress, replacing the former motto “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one). The fourth amendment says “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated”, but we read about the government collecting and storing all our electronic communications without warrant or probable cause. The fifth amendment says “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”. But people accused (not convicted) of drug offenses have their property confiscated. People are placed on the “no-fly list” by secret decisions made by anonymous decision-makers, depriving them of the liberty to go where they want or need to go. We often hear of people being deprived of their lives by agents of government, without any suggestion of a trial.
The sixth amendment says “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury”, but only a tiny fraction of the millions now or recently imprisoned had a trial. The rest were pressured into pleading guilty by a combination of overcharging, with the threat of a much harsher sentence, and inadequate resources for their defense. The eighth amendment says “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” But we hear of people being held in prison for extended periods because they are too poor to pay traffic fines. Extended solitary confinement is known to generate or aggravate mental illness, and is therefore cruel punishment, but unfortunately it isn’t unusual.
The Bill of Rights, part of the Constitution, is supposed to be the supreme law of the country. Examples like those above raise the question of the extent to which it is treated as such.
The U.N. Declaration contains many more rights than the U.S. Bill of Rights, though it doesn’t include rights like clean air and clean water which might have been included if it had been adopted later than it was. But unlike the Bill of Rights, it isn’t binding law even nominally. It’s just a declaration of the rights to which the governments that adopted it claimed to aspire. Nowadays we don’t even hear of it as an aspiration. Housing as a right? We take it for granted that there are people who are homeless. A job as a right? We take it for granted that there are unemployed people who are able and willing to work. Medical care as a right? We take it for granted that the quality of care we get depends on how much we are able and willing to pay for it and for the insurance that inadequately covers it. The right to form and join a labor union? Who even hears of it?
Currently we can’t credibly credibly claim that human rights are advancing. Even the idea that they ought to advance is under challenge. That’s a trend that humanistic ethics tells us ought to be reversed.