All Cultures Value Human Rights

Anika Rahman

Where would the world be without the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What body would have the moral authority to set the standard for nations everywhere? The answer: The United Nations.

Human Rights Day slipped by on Monday without much attention in the popular press. Not yet a Hallmark holiday, Human Rights Day was named to commemorate the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR).  A good number of Americans are conflicted in their views on the UN.  According to the most recent research, Americans who were alive when the UN was established after World War II tend to have a higher opinion of it. The rest of us range from ambivalence to anger at the UN for providing Hugo Chavez with a forum to call President Bush "the devil" (no matter how we feel about the President). 

The only mainstream media that routinely covers the UN, Fox News, never misses a chance to rail against it.  Most daily newspapers just skip coverage of UN activities altogether, except for when really terrible things happen to the UN such as yesterday's destruction of UN offices in Algeria by terrorists.

The Declaration of Human Rights affirms the equality of all people, their worth as individuals and their inherent right to freedom of speech and belief.  What could be more central, more basic to the beliefs of Americans then the idea that all people are born free and have the right to their religious and political beliefs and the right to express them without fear of imprisonment?

Where would the world be without the UNDHR?  What body would have the moral authority to set the standard for nations everywhere? The answer:  The United Nations.  The United Nations, a body whose very existence is a testament to our commonalities over our differences, came together to affirm that all cultures value human rights.  Because of the global human rights standards articulated by the United Nations, we know that all societies should be moving past the point of enslaving a portion of their people, discriminating against women or killing political dissidents. 

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It's true that these abuses to our fellow humans continue.  Darfur is probably the worst example of a massive violation of human rights, though, unfortunately, human rights violations occur in every corner of the world every day.  Gone are the days when those of us who live under a Constitution that establishes our rights, could sit back and wonder if those weren't just the problems of people with different belief systems. 

When the world was a larger place and we had less understanding of other societies we may have been able to say "perhaps we shouldn't impose our views on other peoples."  International human rights are not about any one nation imposing its views on another.  Rather, it is about our collective global belief that, by virtue of being human, we are entitled to basic rights that our governments should protect.

Most of us consider the United States as a shining example of the provision of rights to its citizens.  We are not always perfect in the execution but our Constitution really is the gold standard of freedom.  Of course, this gold can be muddied.   The constitutional rights we recognize have been questioned as a result of our policies at Guatanamo Bay and the limited legal procedural rights we have granted other detainees.  Our government's commitment to human rights has also been questioned by as a result of the Abu Ghraib and our torture policies. 

And that brings me back to the United Nations, the embodiment of the concept of a world where we all take care of each other, can be the mouthpiece of enlightenment.

Next week I want to talk about that hotbed of human rights abuses, China, because it's where U.S. policy and the UN's work to promote the rights of women – through UNFPA – wreck into each other to the detriment of China's women.  

Commentary Human Rights

A Sterilized Peruvian Woman Seeks Justice From the Americas’ Highest Human Rights Court

Cynthia Soohoo & Suzannah Phillips

I.V.'s case, I.V. v. Bolivia, illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

In 2000, a Peruvian political refugee referred to by her initials, “I.V.,” went to a Bolivian public hospital to deliver her third child. According to court documents, the doctors decided during the cesarean section that a future pregnancy would be dangerous for I.V. and performed a tubal ligation—for which they claimed they had I.V.’s consent. When I.V. learned that she had been sterilized two days later, she said, she was devastated.

After her complaint against the surgeon who sterilized her was dismissed by Bolivian courts, I.V. brought her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IA Court), which heard oral arguments earlier this month. In a region where there are widespread reports of forced sterilization, the case is the first time the court will consider whether nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation.

The IA Court should hand down its decision in the coming months. A favorable ruling in this case by the IA Court—the highest human rights court in the Americas—could require Bolivia to, among other things, pay reparations to I.V., investigate and possibly punish the doctors who sterilized her, and take steps to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. The decision will also have ramifications across the region, establishing a binding legal precedent for the 25 countries that are party to the American Convention on Human Rights.

I.V. v. Bolivia provides an important opportunity for the IA Court to condemn forced sterilization and to adopt clear standards concerning informed consent. It would also be joining U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court of Human Rights in recognizing that forced sterilization violates fundamental human rights to personal integrity and autonomy, to be free from gender discrimination and violence, to privacy and family life, and, as CUNY Law School’s Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic and Women Enabled International recently argued in our amicus brief to the IA Court, to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or torture.

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Further, the European Court and U.N. experts recognize that possible health risk from a future pregnancy cannot justify nonconsensual sterilization because there are alternative contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy and women must be given the time and information needed to make an informed choice about sterilization. The IA Court should make similar findings.

Unlike the sterilization of Mexican immigrant women in the United States in the 1970s, recently portrayed in the documentary No Más Bebés, I.V.’s case doesn’t appear to involve a broad governmental policy of sterilizing poor or immigrant women. But it illustrates the all-too-common scenario of medical providers making decisions on behalf of women who are deemed unfit or unable to make their own choices.

Indeed, forced and coerced sterilization is disproportionately perpetrated around the world against women in stigmatized groups, such as women living with HIV, poor women, ethnic or national minorities, or women with disabilities because some health-care providers believe that such women should not have children. Whether driven by animosity against certain women, stereotypes that these women are unfit to become parents, or a paternalistic notion that “doctor knows best,” the end result is the same: Women are permanently robbed of their capacity to have children without their consent.

The parties contest whether I.V. orally consented to sterilization during her c-section. But even if she did so, medical ethical standards and decisions from U.N. human rights bodies and the European Court make clear that consent obtained during labor or immediately preceding or after delivery cannot be valid because the circumstances surrounding delivery—due to pain, anesthesia, or other factors—are inherently inconsistent with voluntary patient choice.

I.V. delivered at a public hospital that predominantly treats indigent women, many of whom are indigenous or migrants. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—which effectively acts as a court of first instance for the IA Court—considered the case before it went to the IA Court and noted the special vulnerability of migrant women seeking health care in Bolivia, given their reliance on public services and the lack of care options. It found that I.V.’s medical team was influenced by “gender stereotypes on the inability of women to make autonomous” reproductive decisions. It further concluded that the decision to sterilize I.V. without proper consent reflected notions that the medical staff was “empowered to take better medical decisions than the woman concerned regarding control over reproduction.”

Sixteen years after her sterilization, I.V. still acutely feels the emotional and psychological toll of having been sterilized. Because of the severity of physical and mental harms that forced sterilization imposes upon women, the Inter-American Court should join the European Court of Human Rights and U.N. human rights experts in recognizing that forced sterilization constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and may constitute torture.

In addition to condemning forced sterilization, the IA Court should recognize the multiple human rights violations I.V. suffered. The Inter-American human rights system protects women from gender-based discrimination and violence and violations of the right to personal integrity, information, privacy, and family life, all of which are at issue in this case.

News Politics

Donald Trump Would ‘Absolutely’ Change Republican Platform on Abortion Rights

Ally Boguhn

The release of the GOP’s platform caused controversy in 2012 for containing no official exceptions for a total ban on legal abortion across the country.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump said Thursday that he would change the Republican Party’s anti-choice platform to include exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and when the pregnant person’s life is in danger.

“The Republican platform every four years has a provision that states that the right of the unborn child shall not be infringed,” NBC’s Savannah Guthrie said during a town hall event on Today. “And it makes no exceptions for rape, for incest, for the life of the mother. Would you want to change the Republican platform to include the exceptions that you have?”

“Yes, I would. Yes, I would. Absolutely. For the three exceptions, I would,” Trump said.

“Would you have an exception for the health of the mother?” Guthrie continued.

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“I would leave it for the life of the mother,” Trump said.

The GOP’s official 2012 platform said that the party “assert[s] the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” The party advocates for “a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

Similar language was used in both the 2004 and 2008 GOP platforms.

“We have a general plank in there that affirms our belief in the God-given right to life and that governments are instituted to protect that,” former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, then-chair of the GOP’s Platform Committee, said upon the release of the platform in 2012, according to the Washington Post. “The specifics are largely left up to the states.”

The release of the GOP’s platform caused controversy in 2012 for containing no official exceptions for a total ban on legal abortion across the country. The document was released shortly after former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s notorious comment that abortions in cases of rape were not needed because, as the one-time lawmaker said, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Exceptions to unconstitutional abortion bans have again become a topic of debate as Republican presidential candidates have offered different opinions on the matter throughout the race. Though Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) say they support exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) would only support an exception for life endangerment.

Trump’s murky positions on abortion rights have caused consternation in anti-choice circles. The leading GOP candidate said in March that abortion patients should face “some sort of punishment” if legal abortion was outlawed nationwide.