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In yet another sign that the U.S. Supreme Court should now consider global human rights principles in domestic cases, the court recently decided to review the government’s indefinite detention of the persons held in Guantanamo. The decision follows the court’s surprising but welcome references to international law in two landmark civil rights cases last summer. In the single most significant court decision on gay rights in history, Lawrence struck down sodomy laws as unconstitutional. Referencing decisions in support of gay rights in Europe, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that the right of gay people to engage in intimate, consensual conduct “has been accepted as an integral part of human freedom in many other countries.” Similarly, in upholding the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program in Grutter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s concurring opinion cited international conventions on gender and race discrimination. It’s about time. More than 60 years ago, the United States led efforts to pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In direct response to the horrors of World War II, the universal declaration guarantees every person equal and inalienable rights, and reaffirms the inherent dignity and worth of every human person. Having exported the concept of fundamental freedoms, the United States then spent the next several decades exempting itself from a growing body of human rights conventions. That puts the United States out of sync with nearly all of the world’s democracies. A few examples: Somalia and the U.S. are the only governments that haven’t ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Iran and the U.S. are the lone holdouts in voting for the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Yet other democracies have now explicitly incorporated global human rights principles into their constitutions. Because most human rights treaties and conventions are unenforceable in U.S. courts, it isn’t surprising that civil rights advocates here have relied almost solely on the Constitution and domestic law to protect rights. On the other hand, human rights groups based in the United States have focused primarily on abuses in other countries. Rights in a global village That is now changing, in part because nations are increasingly intertwined through commerce, democratization, immigration and globalization. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said, “No government institution can afford now to ignore the rest of the world.” Indeed, there are distinct advantages to using a global human rights framework in the United States. First, global human rights principles can hold the U.S. government accountable for its actions abroad as well as at home. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding government documents in response to reports that the government is intentionally sending detainees to countries known to engage in torture and other illegal interrogation techniques. If successful, this action will help us determine whether the United States has violated the Convention Against Torture, one of the few human rights treaties that we have actually signed and ratified. Second, a global lens will illuminate the ripple effect that rights violations here have in other countries. The USA Patriot Act has already spawned copycat “patriot acts” throughout the free and not-so-free world that in many cases are even less respectful of human rights than the homegrown law. Third, a human rights framework is motivating a new generation of activists because it integrates a wide range of related rights issues-such as poverty and discrimination, immigration and workers’ rights-and fosters closer collaboration among lawyers, grassroots organizers and educators. Finally, putting the human back into human rights extends protections to everyone. The idea sounds simple but is increasingly ignored by our own government. For the first time in history, our government has argued that even U.S. citizens are not entitled to constitutional rights when detained here and declared to be enemy combatants. In the name of national security, the United States continues to detain a growing number of people in legal limbo in Guantanamo and elsewhere, arguing that they have no rights under our Constitution and no enforceable rights under international humanitarian or human rights laws. Conceding that the war on terror may never end and that detainees are not considered by the government to be ordinary prisoners of war, Donald Rumsfeld recently said this indefinite detention could last for decades. Framing rights in terms of human rights stops this legal shell game. The mission of this new movement is clear: We must convince U.S. courts, Congress and the executive branch of the value of embracing global human rights. We must stop at nothing to ensure that every human being enjoys the fundamental rights enshrined in both the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ann Beeson is associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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