Public Comment

Commentary: Declaration of Human Rights Should Be Law

By Jacqueline Sokolinsky
Tuesday July 25, 2006

What exactly is the United States’ position in national and international laws of peace and human rights?  

The framers of the Constitution famously left such questions out altogether, and this oversight was corrected by the appended Bill of Rights. Article 7 of the Bill of Rights says no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” But “due process of law” is nowhere defined. 

Interestingly, Article 13 of the Bill of Rights says that no one shall be subjected to “slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime.” Ratified in 1865, the loophole was never repealed, so this article allows slavery and involuntary servitude of convicted criminals. 

No where in the Bill of Rights are any principles or ethical guidelines established concerning the circumstances under which the United States may declare and wage war. 

At present, the Congress is up in arms because the Supreme Court’s recent decision to hold the president’s administration to the Geneva Conventions. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, “I don’t think we’re going to pass something that’s going to have our military servicemen subject to some kind of international rules.” 

So what do the Geneva Conventions say? The third establishes standards for the treatment of prisoners of war (“internees”). The fourth establishes standards for the treatment of inhabitants of occupied territories. Article 3 of both documents prohibit torture and a wide range of abuses, from “outrages upon personal dignity” to “murder,” while permitting executions by “regularly constituted courts.” The fourth convention is a bizarre document. For example, safety zones may be established for “children under 15, expectant mothers and mothers of children under 7” but not for men and women generally unless “wounded, sick and aged.” In contrast to the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions permit death sentences. (The texts are on-line at www.globalissuesgroup.com.) 

Unlike the fatally ambiguous Bill of Rights, which makes no human rights provisions in its concept of “due process of law,” and the hawkish Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a beautifully lucid document. In Article 3 it asserts, without conditions, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In Article 4: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” In Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

Thus, it prohibits capital punishment. Although the 18th-century Bill of Rights permits capital punishment, the subsequently ratified Universal Declaration of Human Rights should have eliminated it. In Article 8 of the Bill of Rights it prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” In the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5, it states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

Whether or not the current U.S. government considers itself and its military bound by “some kind of international rules”—the international community ought, in my opinion, to hold it to the international laws of peace, human rights and justice as framed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal (1950).  

The Nuremberg Principles define war crimes. One principle Americans should be familiar with is Principle II, wherein “The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.” 

Thus American torturers, though free from punishment in the Supreme Court decision—which merely ruled that torture is not permissible—should be tried by an international court. Should George W. Bush be tried for such crimes against peace defined in the Nuremberg Principles as planning and waging a war of aggression and spearheading a policy of torture and military tribunals? The Nuremberg Principles (number III) states clearly, “The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.” Should U.S. military personnel be tried for “murder” and “ill-treatment” of “civilian population or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war”? Principle IV states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” 

It is my opinion that the United States should be bound by international law and subject to international tribunals. If it is not—and at present it is not—there is no way to preserve the United States from the path of military domination of the globe and totalitarianism here and abroad. 

 

Jacqueline Sokolinsky is a Berkeley  

resident.