Spotlights on Health and Rights

Key topics in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health

Human Rights

The U.S. Human Rights Record

Compared to other countries of the global North, the United States has ratified relatively few of the core international human rights treaties. Table 2 below shows the record as of 2010.

U.S. ratification of core human rights treaties

Core human rights instrument U.S. action as of 2010
ICCPR, 1966 Ratified, 1992
ICESCR, 1966 Signed (under Pres. Carter, 1977), not ratified
Convention on Racial Discrimination, 1965 Ratified, 1994
CEDAW, 1979 Signed (under Pres. Carter, 1980), not ratified
Convention on Torture, 1984 Ratified, 1994
Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 Signed (under Pres. Clinton, 1995), not ratified
Migrant Worker Convention, 1990 Not signed or ratified
Forced Disappearance Convention, 2006 Not signed or ratified
Convention on Disability, 2006 Signed (under Pres. Obama, 2009), not ratified

Question for Thought

In general, the U.S. has not ratified human rights treaties that contain significant economic, social and cultural rights obligations (including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, CEDAW and ICESCR). Why might this be?

As the above table shows, the U.S. has ratified only ICCPR, the Convention on Torture and the Convention on Racial Discrimination. The U.S. is one of only two countries that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the other non-ratifier is Somalia, which has not had a functioning legislature for much of the time since 1989 when the treaty was opened for signature. There are also very few countries in the world that have not ratified CEDAW; the U.S. is in the company of Iran, Somalia, Sudan and a very few others as non-ratifiers. Some 300 NGOs in the US have expressed strong support for CEDAW.

The U.S. Senate (upper chamber of the U.S. Congress) has convened hearings on CEDAW ratification on two occasions. Here are some of the provisions of CEDAW that were discussed at those hearings:

Article 5: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices...and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes...; (b) To ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children....

Article 11: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment [including]...(b) To introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority or social allowances. (c) To encourage the provision of the necessary supporting social services to enable parents to combine family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life, in particular through promoting the establishment and development of a network of child-care facilities.

Article 12: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure...access to health care services, including those related to family planning.

Article 16: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to...ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women...the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.

Question for Thought

Are there provisions among those above that you think would be politically controversial in the United States? Why?

To reflect further on this question, you may note the following points:

  • As of 2005, some 110 countries - well more than half of UN member states - have enshrined the right to health in their highest national law (usually their constitution). Of these, the great majority specify that people have a right to basic health care. There are no such provisions in U.S. law. (Why is a guarantee of the right to health, progressively realized, controversial in some countries, including some high-income countries?)

  • The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly articulate a right to privacy, but U.S. Supreme Court decisions have asserted a right to privacy based on several constitutional provisions, and the right to privacy and non-interference of the state in personal and family matters is a strongly held value in many communities in the U.S.