hr primer link

Human Rights and United States Law

The U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Timeline: Human Rights and the United States

The United States and Modern Human Rights: A Brief History

International Treaties the U.S. Has Not Ratified

The United States Human Rights Record

Human Rights and United States Law

Although international human rights law provides an important framework for guaranteeing the rights of all people in all countries, human rights standards generally do not become enforceable in the United States unless and until they are implemented through local, state, and/or federal law. International treaties define rights very generally, and international courts and monitoring bodies typically lack the ability to directly enforce their decisions in the United States. Because the greatest capacity for protection lies in domestic law, one of the best ways to improve human rights in the United States is to strengthen domestic legal protections for human rights by passing laws recognizing those rights and ensuring the implementation of those rights by the government and U.S. courts is consistent with international standards.











The U.S. Constitution and the UDHR



Article 2 14th Amendment (non-discrimination)
Article 3 14th Amendment (life, liberty, security)
Article 4 13th Amendment (slavery)
Article 5 8th Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment)
Article 6 14th Amendment (equal protection)
Article 7 14th Amendment (equal protection)
Article 9 5th Amendment (arbitrary arrest)
Article 10 6th Amendment (fair trial)
Article 12 4th Amendment (privacy)
Article 17 5th Amendment (property)
Article 18 1st Amendment (religion)
Article 19 1st Amendment (speech)
Article 20 1st Amendment (association)
Article 21 15th, 19th, 23rd, 24th, and 26th Amendments (vote)

In the United States, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights provide broad human rights protections. Many of the rights contained in the Constitution are equivalent to rights found in the UDHR, especially those related to political and civil liberties. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has identified fundamental rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, such as the presumption of innocence in a criminal trial and freedom of movement. U.S. courts provide a remedy for people whose constitutional rights have been violated. The U.S. Congress also passes laws that protect constitutional rights and provide remedies for victims of human rights violations when court cases may be too costly or difficult. The most important of these domestic laws are those that prohibit discrimination, including discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or disability.


The Missing Human Rights

Although the U.S. Constitution provides strong protections for civil and political rights, it fails to recognize the economic, social, and cultural rights guaranteed in the UDHR. Some rights, such as the right to education, can be found in some state constitutions; others, such as the right to an adequate standard of living including food, shelter, and medical care, have not been recognized as rights. Statutes may address issues such as access to food and treat it as meeting a need for some defined group of people, but they do not recognize it as a right to which all people are entitled. Because economic, social, and cultural issues are not viewed as rights enjoyed by all, public policies can exclude people from eligibility as long as they do not discriminate on prohibited grounds such as race. While ensuring that public policies are not discriminatory is important, it does not address the underlying problem of failing to guarantee for all people in the United States an adequate standard of living and other rights necessary to live in dignity.


TIMELINE: Human Rights and the U.S.

The Bill of Rights guarantees civil and political rights to individual citizens, including: freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to a fair trial; and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.


One hundred women and men sign the Seneca Falls Declaration proclaiming equal social, civil, and religious rights for women.



The U.S. signs the Hague Conventions which define the laws of war and maritime combat, create protections for prisoners of war and civilians, and establish mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. 



The League of Nations forms “to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and
and security.”
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson leads the effort to establish the League, but the United States never joins. 


Following the Japanese government’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forcibly interns 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of them citizens, in detention camps.


The American Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are adopted.  The United States leads the efforts to draft both documents. 


Martin Luther King, Jr. wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resistance to racial injustice in America. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws major forms of discrimination in voting, the workplace, schools and public accommodations.


The United States ratifies the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While signed, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights remains unratified. 

hr primer link

The Declaration of Independence states that
“all men are created equal … [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, leading  to the forced relocation of 70,000 Native Americans. Many Native Americans die on the westward journey.  The Act was one of many official government actions that violated the Native Americans’ rights.

The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation  helped to end slavery in the United States, eventually leading to the 13th Amendment (1865), which abolishes slavery, and the 14th Amendment (1868), which guarantees equal protection of the law to all people in the United States.

Congress passes the Sedition Act of 1918, which makes it a crime to publish or speak “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the form of government, the Constitution, or the military of the United States. Over 2,000 people are prosecuted under the Act. 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launches the New Deal in an effort to bring the United States out of the Great Depression. Legislation passed under the New Deal establishes Social Security, bans child labor, legalizes trade union practices, and provides jobs to millions of Americans.


The United Nations is established. One of its purposes is “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”  The United States is instrumental in helping create the United Nations.


In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.



Almost 40 years after its creation, the United States ratifies the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.


The U.S. begins using a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay to hold terrorism suspects in custody without a trial.

The United States and Modern Human Rights:
A Brief History

The United States has a mixed record on human rights. Despite early leadership on human rights during the 20th century, the United States, unlike many other nations around the world, has not ratified most of the major human rights treaties. U.S. foreign policy does not always respect human rights and the government also fails to protect key human rights domestically, especially economic and social rights.

Founding Human Rights
During the first half of the 20th century, the United States was an active proponent of establishing a universal human rights system. It was one of the leaders in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed in 1948. It also played a prominent role in the Nuremberg International Military Tribunals, which prosecuted individuals for crimes against humanity for the first time.

Withdrawl from the Human Rights System
Despite its initial support, in the 1950s the United States stopped participating in, and in some cases directly opposed, the newly established international human rights system. One reason for this disengagement was the conflict stemming from the Cold War, which made it difficult to support a common standard for human rights that might leave the United States vulnerable to criticism from its ideological enemies. The United States also had domestic reasons for refusing to accept international human rights law. At that time, many states in the United States practiced legally-sanctioned discrimination against racial minorities in the form of Jim Crow laws. The U.S. government did not want to be forced to change discriminatory laws and policies as a result of ratifying an international treaty.

Re-Engagement with the Human Rights System
In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States renewed its commitment to the international human rights system by signing, though not ratifying, several major human rights treaties, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Indeed, during the Carter Administration, respect for human rights played a role in determining foreign policy.

Despite these gains, it was not until the late 1980s and 1990s that the United States ratified some of these treaties, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1987), the ICCPR (1992), the ICERD (1994), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1994). During this period, the United States also became more active in humanitarian interventions and prosecuting crimes against humanity.

Present-Day Situation
Today, the United States is still not fully committed to the international human rights system. The government has yet to ratify important human rights-related treaties and opposes some forms of international cooperation on human rights such as the International Criminal Court. There are signs, however, that the United States is increasing its commitment to international human rights. In 2009, the United States rejoined the UN Human Rights Council that it helped to create and signed the newly created Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).


Major International Treaties the U.S. Has NOT Ratified
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights • (1966) Part of the International Bill of Human Rights, this is the only covenant that requires governments to promote and protect such rights as health, education, social protection, and an adequate standard of living for all people. The ICESCR has been ratified by more than 150 countries. President Carter signed the Covenant in 1977, but the United States has yet to ratify it.

  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women • (1979) The most comprehensive and detailed international agreement that seeks the advancement of women, CEDAW has been ratified by 185 countries. Although President Carter signed CEDAW in 1980, today the United States is the only industrialized country that has not ratified the treaty.
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child • (1989) Protecting children from physical and mental abuse and hazardous work, and giving children the right to free primary education, the CRC has been ratified by 193 countries, making it one of the most widely adopted conventions. President Clinton signed the CRC in 1995 but the United States has yet to ratify it, one of only two countries in the world not to do so.
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court • (1998) The ICC conducts trials of individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity when there is no other recourse for justice. 146 countries have signed the ICC, including the United States. In 2002, President Bush stated that the United States did not intend to be bound by its signature to the Rome Statute and that it had no intention of ratifying it.
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families • (1990) The Migrant Workers Convention protects migrant workers and their families from abuse and inhumane treatment in the countries where they work. No industrialized, migrant-receiving country, including the United States, has signed this treaty.
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities • (2006) The CRPD is the first global convention that specifically addresses the human rights of persons with disabilities. President Obama signed the treaty in 2009, but the United States has yet to ratify it.
  • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance • (2006) This Convention affirms that enforced disappearances constitute a crime against humanity when practiced in a widespread or systematic manner. The United States has not yet signed this treaty.
U.S. Reservations to International Law 

When the U.S. ratifies a human rights treaty, it often adds a reservation, declaration, or understanding that negates protection of certain rights. The U.S. generally makes two kinds of reservations to treaties:

Declares treaty “not self-executing.” This means that the treaty alone is not enforceable in domestic courts unless Congress passes legislation to implement its provisions. If the United States fails to pass the necessary legislation to uphold its international obligations, people whose treaty rights are violated have no recourse in domestic courts.

Limits scope of treaty. The United States frequently makes reservations limiting the scope of the treaty so as not to supersede the rights protected in the U.S. Constitution. For example, if a treaty prohibits cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the U.S. will interpret this clause to mean the same thing as the Constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In some cases, the U.S. says that it will not enact any part of a treaty that conflicts with the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the United States.

Such limiting reservations mean that the decisions of international bodies on what constitutes a violation of an international treaty are superseded by domestic courts interpreting domestic laws created by Congress. Thus, rather than accepting the international system of human rights law when it signs international human rights treaties, the U.S. continues to rely on domestic protections alone.

Most Americans have heard of human rights abuses occurring in other countries around the world, but many do not realize that human rights are being violated in the U.S. as well.  This link provides some examples of the failure of the U.S. to comply with international human rights obligations. 



  • © Architect of the Capitol. Wikipedia Commons: (John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress, 1819.  The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda)
  • ©  U.S. Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902, addresses the first woman’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls,New York, July 19, 1848)
  • ©  U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. Color Lithograph by Stephens, H. L., 1824-1882. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2521.  (Card showing African American slave reaching freedom, 1863)
  • ©  National Archives of Canada. (Leage of Nations Assembly, Geneva, 1936)
  • ©  U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, digital ID cph.3c17121. Goldensky, Elias, 1868-1943, photographer.  (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
  • ©  United Nations Photo # 1292 (Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Declaration of Human Rights poster in English. November 1949)
  • ©  U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division. United Press International telephoto. No. NXP1057442. (Mrs. Nettie Hunt, sitting on steps of Supreme Court, holding newspaper, explaining to her daughter Nickie the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision banning school segregation.  Newspaper headline reads “High Court Bans Segregation in Public Schools.” 1954)
  • ©  U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, digital ID ppmsc.01269.  Trikosko, Marion S., photographer. (Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference, March 26, 1964)