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School of Law

Torture Allegations, Racial Conflicts… and Leadership on Human Rights?

In this article, Professor Eric Heinze of QMUL's School of Law, argues that the United States, whose government has "has committed grave violations" in the area of human rights, has placed its leadership role in question.

Image of prisoners in orange jumpsuits marching in a line

‘We stand today’, proclaimed Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948, ‘at the threshold of a great event’.  As Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mrs Roosevelt was presenting to the world the newly drafted Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  ‘This declaration’, she continued, ‘may well become the international Magna Carta’.

In those years, the United States could still take pride in sending its First Lady to lead that eminently humanist project.  The US had assured the defeat of both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.  While Stalinism had already destroyed millions of lives, the US was promising to protect democracy at home and abroad.

Within a few short years, however, clouds had gathered over American leadership on human rights.  Having defeated a racist ideology in Europe, Americans were now confronted with racism at home.  Some states still maintained outright racial segregation, and even non-segregated states were far from equal.  Meanwhile, America’s indigenous peoples, or First Nations, continued to live in poverty and neglect. 


Later decades could scarcely bolster America’s leadership in human rights.  The Vietnam War, the US-Soviet arms race, manipulative or exploitative corporate practices at home and abroad, reticence on environmentalism, and, more recently, the war on terror, have left many around the world, even among America’s allies, doubting US authority on human rights.

The recent Senate Report confirming acts of torture, as well as information leaked by Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowdon, offer little re-assurance.  Recent incidents of white-on-black police brutality leave many wondering whether civil rights movements begun in the past century have made as much progress as Americans might have thought.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Senate Report confirms that ‘CIA abuses were far more brutal, systematic, and widespread than previously reported; that many of the CIA’s interrogation techniques went beyond even those authorized by the Justice Department; and that the CIA began using the techniques long before they had obtained authorization for them.’  At the same time, large nationwide protests against police racism have grown apace. Organizers have hailed a ‘Week of Outrage’, involving further demonstrations in major cities.


Is it time for us to re-think what is meant by ‘leadership’ on human rights?  

Today, few if any states can altogether avoid accusations of human rights violations.  Even relatively small, stable, and prosperous countries, like Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, or the Netherlands, face periodic court orders to compensate victims of state abuse.  For larger states, particularly those hosting highly varied or mobile populations, it seems utopian to expect that violations will not occur.  

Where, then, is leadership on human rights to be found?  To be sure, the role of ‘leader’ ought not to be exaggerated.  The United Nations Charter commits all member states to respect ‘the dignity and worth of the human person’.  But it nowhere assigns to any state a leadership position.  Nor does it dictate that states are to respect human rights only insofar as some ‘leading’ state does the same.  

Within both the European Union and the Council of Europe, there remains too much political division for decisive and visible international leadership on human rights.  Some European states, moreover, face internal problems not very different from America’s.  

If the US is to lead on human rights, then that role will have to take a form very different from a sheer balance sheet of successes and failures.  In a world awash with violations, no powerful ‘leader’ can emerge boasting an irreproachable national performance.

Leadership can, however, be displayed through the ways in which violations are addressed.  Human rights rely on more than just the discrete acts of governments.  Rights are only truly promoted and strengthened when an active consciousness of them spreads throughout a population.  In that way, they continue their historic role of placing additional checks and balances on abuses of government power.  Popular critical dialogue about human rights serves to limit government abuses of power informally, yet often powerfully, by reminding citizens of the vigilance which they must constantly maintain. 

Best practice

Since the states with the best records are generally small, stable, and relatively prosperous, they may certainly offer aspirational models and helpful examples of best practice; but, for obvious power-political reasons, they cannot readily assume positions of global leadership.  

Despite the patently disturbing realties they disclose, the Senate report on torture, as well as the mass demonstrations against racism confirm that, when violations do occur, populations must maintain critical involvement and discussion, precisely of the kind that these events have spurred not only among Americans but throughout the world.  

American athletes and celebrities are displaying high-profile gestures of solidarity with the protesters.  Many universities are hosting campus-wide events, and even contemplating postponements of winter exams to allow students to join anti-racism campaigns.

Only through such popular ‘ownership’ do human rights move from the sphere of enumerated rules directed at government to a sphere of popular awareness and shared, critically-minded discussion.  A country whose government has committed grave violations certainly places its leadership role in question.  However, a country whose people maintain active, ongoing, and unrestrained public discourse about human rights may reclaim that leadership role after all.  

About the author

Eric Heinze is Professor of Law and Humanities at Queen Mary University of London. After completing studies in Paris, Berlin, Boston, and Leiden, Eric Heinze worked with the International Commission of Jurists and UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights, in Geneva, and on private litigation before the United Nations Administrative Tribunal in New York.

He is a member of the Bars of New York and Massachusetts, and has also advised NGOs on human rights, including Liberty, Amnesty International and the Media Diversity Institute. He currently co-ordinates Queen Mary’s Inter-Departmental Philosophy Programme. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and other publications. He serves on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Human Rights and the British Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Law at Queen Mary University of London

The School of Law has as its central focus the role of law and its institutions in contemporary international society and it is divided into two organisational units: the Department of Law and the Centre for Commercial Law Studies (CCLS). The School of Law at Queen Mary University of London has been ranked 3rd in the UK and 1st in London in the Guardian University Guide 2015 subject league tables.

The image used to accompany this story is re-produced, with thanks, under a creative commons licence. The owner is Justin Norman.



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