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Inhumane Society

St. Louis scores failing grades on a report card of compliance with the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights


World War II's atrocities so horrified the civilized world that its representatives, grimly murmuring, "Never again," forged a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Passed by the United Nations in 1948, the document acknowledged every human person's right to have basic needs met, fundamental freedoms protected. Tomorrow is the tarnished-gold, not-quite-jubilant 50th anniversary of the UDHR. In anticipation, researchers from 12 local organizations in the St. Louis Coalition on Human Rights have spent months measuring local conditions against the UDHR's standards.

We flunked.
Looking at the death penalty, we got F's in "racial discrimination," "children's rights" and "due process." A disproportionate percentage of African-Americans continue to be sentenced to death, often by all-white juries, a violation of the "equal protection under the law" clause in Articles 2 and 7. Missouri children who commit capital crimes may be executed, in violation of UDHR Articles 3 and 5. Missouri law does not even mention mental retardation or mental illness as a mitigating factor in sentencing someone to death, a violation of Article 10.

Article 23 outlines the right to "just renumeration for work," another F here inSt. Louis, where a full-time, minimum-continued on next pageHUMAN RIGHTScontinued from previous pagewage worker with two children earns 78 percent of the federal poverty level. We also failed in "privacy" and "marriage": Missouri law criminalizes sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex in the privacy of their own home, which is protected from arbitrary intrusion by Article 12; Missouri law also refuses the right of marriage (Article 16) to any nonheterosexual. (The 1948 writers probably did not intend to protect sexual orientation, but their wording left the door open for that interpretation.)

These research categories were deliberately selected areas of concern; in a massive, comprehensive study, local grades would no doubt improve. Still, there were plenty of areas of concern. The coalition gave D's for "gender equity," "health care," "security of women and urban youth," "representative government," "food" and "housing." The highest grades were a qualified C- for the "right to political asylum" (local jails are avidly competing for contracts to detain immigrants indefinitely) and a C- for "free assembly and speech" (all but one of the local shopping malls restrict the democratic process of signature-gathering).

Research methods varied in type and rigor, but each grade emerged from a detailed report, the fattest examining local access to health care. With Regional Hospital closed and the other hospitals consolidated into four huge systems -- all either for-profit or behaving that way -- the prognosis isn't good.

Another thick report came from the Missouri Citizen Education Fund, which compared the insurance industry's political contributions with Missouri legislators' voting records. On the three bills studied, all attempts to increase working families' access to basic health care, the researchers did find a direct relationship: "The larger the campaign contributions from the insurance industry, the more likely it was that the representatives would vote against the bill."

The report card will be released at St. Louis University this Thursday. But it's not likely to make much difference to those in power. The coalition surveyed every elected official in Missouri about implementation of the UDHR and received only five responses (one state senator -- St. Louis Democrat Lacy Clay -- and four mayors of St. Louis County municipalities). "We have a job ahead of us to make people think they are accountable," acknowledges Bill Ramsey, who coordinates the Human Rights Action Service and helped pull together the report card.

Does he think everyone should be accountable to a pie-in-the-sky piece of paper drafted a half-century ago? "I do. Each sovereign state may have its own definition of freedom and self-determination, and each city may feel it is implementing human rights, but if we don't have any international standard to judge that by, then sovereignty becomes more important than human rights," Ramsey says.

There's also room for improvement in the UDHR itself. Written in 1948, the document does not mention disabilities, sexual orientation or the rights of indigenous peoples. "Interestingly enough, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who chaired the UDHR committee," Ramsey notes. "At least she wasn't self-serving!" He notes that the UDHR nearly died during the Cold War, thanks, in his opinion, to the Soviet Union's chariness of its civil and political rights, as well as the United States' embarrassment about its economic and social rights. But then the decolonialization movements in the Third World and the civil-rights movements here took up the UDHR as their banner of freedom.

Still, the declaration does not have the force of law. "It's just words, if people are not willing to hold each other accountable," says Ramsey. A series of covenants have been passed by individual nations to make aspects of the UDHR binding. But the U.S. has insisted on sovereignty, lobbying hard to keep the document from becoming self-enforcing and attaching caveats to those covenants it ratified. Amnesty International just collected 11 million signatures on a petition calling for implementation of the UDHR -- but our country's likely to block that.

"Outside the U.S., the UDHR is used a great deal more," remarks Ramsey. "The U.S. has never even ratified the economic and social covenant, and they ratified the civil and political covenant with 13 reservations." The problem with the economic covenant is that it makes the stuff of survival a right, not a reward for Calvinist industry. "The 'pursuit of happiness' is as close as the Constitution gets to the right to food, clothing and health care," Ramsey notes. "Ask people, 'Do Americans have a right to private property?' and they say yes; ask them if Americans have a right to food and they say, 'No, that's an entitlement.'"

The U.S. also attached caveats to covenants on racial discrimination and torture and has yet to ratify covenants on the rights of women and children. "This document, if applied and enforced, has the potential to disrupt our central role on the world stage," explains Ramsey. "For me, that's a positive development; I would like to see my country sitting alongside other countries rather than pulling the strings."

His main regret -- in addition to the absence of explicit reference to disabilities, sexual orientation and indigenous rights -- is that the document is toothless. And it is "not worded in a way that helps individuals and groups deal with corporate power as it is expressed in the world today," Ramsey says. "Nation-states are the UDHR's primary focus, as protectors or obstructors of human rights. Yet corporations are playing a much larger role today."

Most of them are flunking, too.

The UDHR celebration will be held at 7 p.m. in St. Louis University's Carlo Auditorium; for information, call 367-5959. The "report card" will be published by Webster University's Human Rights Education Project and will be available in libraries and online; call 725-5303 for information.

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