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Human Rights' Day Has Not Yet Dawned

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message David Swanson       (Page 1 of 7 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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"I think there is a proliferation of rights. I am often surprised by the virtual nobility that seems to be accorded those with grievances. . . . I have to admit that I am one of those people that still thinks a dishwasher is a miracle." --Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas



According to the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

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The men who put their signatures to those words sought to endow each other with those rights, and those rights can be gained or lost. And since that day, people around the world have imagined, created, and struggled for a great many additional rights as well.

Our Constitution came very early in the history of the formal establishment of individual rights. It helped to inspire many other nations to develop the idea further, and to inspire international agreements. Our original Bill of Rights is no longer cutting edge, and yet it does a remarkably good job of providing many basic protections. The most glaring problem with it is not dated concepts or ambiguous wording, but our failure to enforce it. We have to make enforcement happen through Congress and the courts, or there will be no point in making improvements. To restore and expand our rights, there are three basic steps we should take. The first is to enforce the rights already protected by the Constitution. The second is to ratify and enforce international agreements (some of which the United States has already ratified) providing additional rights. The third is to amend our Constitution to include a second Bill of Rights.

So, first things first: how are we doing on enforcing the rights that we are already supposed to have? Here are the basic rights provided by the US Constitution and its amendments, and a quick summary of the shape they're in today:

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Article I, Section 9, habeas corpus: The right not to be kidnapped and detained without charge or trial has been eroded in the United States, its territories, and secret prisons.

The Supreme Court has admirably insisted on the right, while Congress has been willing to toss it to the wind. Not a single individual has been held accountable for having violated it, and the violations have not ended. In 2001 and 2002, US Justice Department lawyers put down in "legal" opinions that the right to habeas corpus could be tossed aside. In 2007 Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before Congress that the right to habeas corpus that appears in the Constitution doesn't really exist. In 2009, the new Obama administration claimed the continued power to render and detain without charge.

Article I, Section 10, the right against ex post facto laws:

It is clearly unconstitutional to criminalize something that has already been done and then punish a crime that was not a crime when it happened. But what about taking actions that were crimes when they happened and immunizing the violators? This looks like Congress taking over the president's pardon power. If the ban on ex post facto laws is understood to include laws that grant retroactive immunity from prosecution, then Congress has been busy violating it by passing laws like the Military Commissions Act or the FISA Amendments Act, laws that claim to give immunity to past violators of crimes. We should consider whether to amend the Constitution to clarify that point.

First Amendment, freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, and the right to petition for redress of grievances:

President Bush punched quite a few holes in the wall of separation between church and state. He used agencies including the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Park Service, the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Education (DOE), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of the Surgeon General to promote the establishment of a religion.

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Freedom of the press has been severely curtailed by the establishment of a system that bars entry to ownership of effective media outlets to all but the very wealthiest. Pundits in the existing media outlets are often directly paid and told what to say by the Pentagon or the White House. Media outlets in occupied nations like Iraq are paid to publish false stories. Reporters on wars are "embedded" with the military, denied access, and banned from publishing important information and images. Independent reporters were preemptively detained but not charged with any crimes during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Freedom of speech and assembly have been radically curtailed to the point where we now have "free speech zones" consisting of walled-in cages outside and at a distance removed from political events. These freedoms are also absent in the workplace, where unionization is effectively blocked, and in "private" gathering places like shopping malls. While you can appeal to your government for a redress of grievances, you'd better do so by mail. People attempting to do so in person are usually prevented by security guards. A Justice Department memo on October 23, 2001, claimed the president could suspend First Amendment rights.

Second Amendment, the right to bear arms:

The Second Amendment was written to protect the Southern states' right to use armed militias to enforce slavery. We no longer have slavery, but we do have the National Guard, which is supposed to be under the control of state governors. We need to correct the current situation in which the US president controls the National Guard and sends its members to fight foreign wars for empire. If we read the Second Amendment as providing an individual right to bear arms, it is important to notice that it makes no distinction between the right to bear arms to violently protect oneself and the right to bear arms to easily slaughter masses of people, or the fact that some types of arms are much better suited to the latter than the former. Clearly, this is one right that needs to be limited by legislation or amendment to the extent that it conflicts with that "self-evident" right to "life."

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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