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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

8 - From Paradox to Subsidiarity: The United States and Human Rights Treaty Bodies


In the battle for democracy and human rights, words matter, but what we do matters much more.

It is frequently said that the United States has a paradoxical human rights policy. On the one hand, the United States embraces human rights principles as a founding national ideology and has supported the enhancement of human rights and democracy as a core premise of its foreign policy since the end of World War II, when it played a leading role in birthing the international human rights regime. Indeed, the promotion of human rights and democracy abroad is a central motivating tenet of U.S. foreign policy, manifested in the nation's extensive foreign assistance commitments, political and financial support of international human rights bodies, linking of bilateral aid to human rights improvements, and annual reporting on the human rights situation of 194 nations of the world. National public opinion polls, moreover, suggest that roughly eighty percent of Americans believe that human rights inhere in every human being, whether the government formally recognizes those rights or not. Equal numbers express not only their support for U.S. ratification of human rights treaties but also their belief that international supervision over those treaty commitments, by a court or other independent body, is necessary.

Yet despite strong external and internal human rights commitments, the United States has appeared to flinch, even recoil, when it comes to direct domestic application of human rights treaty norms, especially as those norms are interpreted by international supervisory bodies.

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