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Conservatives, Liberals, and Human Rights

Authors: Mark P. Lagon, Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and William F. Schulz, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
February/March 2012
Policy Review


When the American section of Amnesty International was first founded in the 1970s, William F. Buckley was one of its earliest supporters. The prime mover behind the American section, Ginetta Sagan, was a mentor to those of all political stripes, including, for example, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, whom no one has ever accused of being a "leftist." When George W. Bush called in his second inaugural address for the United States to affirm "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he was issuing a call with which no human rights advocate could possibly disagree. The board of Freedom House, a prominent human rights organization, is rife with ex-Bush administration officials like William H. Taft IV and Paula J. Dobriansky, and with scholars like Ruth Wedgwood and Joshua Muravchik who are generally identified with the conservative end of the political spectrum.

And yet, despite the political diversity these instances represent, human rights are generally identified as a left-wing cause. There are many reasons for that, perhaps foremost among them the fact that human rights standards are established largely by international instruments, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and enforced, to the extent to which they are "enforced" at all, by international institutions, such as the Human Rights Council. Conservatives tend to resist subsuming American sovereignty to international regimens and to be suspicious of international institutions, in part because they include some member states lacking consent of the governed and basic liberties.As a consequence, the United States has ratified fewer key human rights treaties than the other G20 nations and, when it has ratified them, has tended to attach reservations asserting the preeminent authority of the U.S. Constitution.

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