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Recapturing Human Rights

By James R. Edwards, Jr.

Appeared in the November 2, 1999 edition of Investor's Business Daily

As with so many things in America today -- education and popular culture, for instance -- we're seeing the dumbing-down of human rights. It seems anything and everything qualifies as a human rights problem.

Take immigration. Some assert a human right to immigrate illegally. The American Civil Liberties Union and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation have filed a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. They allege that U.S. protection of its southern border violates international human rights law.

Many Mexicans, plus Central and South Americans, have died because they have sought to enter the United States in more dangerous -- though less guarded -- locations. Of course, it is the aliens themselves who decide to attempt to break the law and try to enter the U.S. illicitly. And most of the deaths are from exhaustion, exposure or drowning.

The U.S. has no land mines or machine guns along its borders. In fact, the Border Patrol has increased its lifesaving capacity. Furthermore, we guard our borders to keep illegal aliens and narcotics out, not to keep people in, as do totalitarian governments.

The ACLU and other critics of our border policy must be puzzled why so many people want to get into America, because those critics are equally upset at other American policies and institutions.

Consider criminal justice. What are America's supposed abuses there? Amnesty International has asserted ''a persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations'' in American criminal justice. By this, Amnesty International means the practice of imposing the death penalty against those found guilty of the most heinous crimes, convicted in a court of law, and afforded generous due process.

Amnesty International also objects to adopting stronger, more appropriate sentences for crimes, especially crimes of violence and drug trafficking, and to closing loopholes through truth-in-sentencing reforms.

But these ''human rights violations'' have actually helped protect the rights of a great many innocent people -- especially minorities and the poor. Getting tough on crime and keeping the most dangerous criminals locked up have significantly decreased the crime rate, particularly in inner cities.

Other ''abuses''? Reducing public funding for legal aid, putting prisoners in out-of-state prisons, using handcuffs and ankle fetters when transporting prisoners, and reining in prisoner litigation, which has cost taxpayers millions.

Certainly, police brutality and other abuses occur in the U.S. because human beings are prone to sin. These should be punished because ours is a government of laws, not of men. However, when comparing the types and frequency of abuses here and elsewhere, there is no comparison.

Consider arbitrary and summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention and unfair political trials in China. Or Zambia, where police use tear gas and batons to break up peaceful public gatherings, journalists are arrested for reporting the news and politicians are detained on political charges. To establish a moral equivalence between these systematic evils and mere political differences with U.S. policy is an abuse of common sense and reason.

If everything is elevated to a human right, then the consensus surrounding certain fundamental rights, upon which all can agree, is diminished.

Ultimately, only one human right can remain under this dumbed down standard: the right of personal preference. Everyone will have a fundamental, unalienable right to his own preference -- ''to define one's own concept of existence'' (as the Supreme Court has so infamously ruled) as to the value of human life, for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, for chocolate over strawberry or the 29 other flavors of ice cream.

Rather, we should re-establish a sound understanding of rights grounded in nature, our human equality as free and equal beings. Only then will human rights mean something more than mere preference and whim, and have real moral authority.

The Declaration of Independence speaks of human rights, properly understood: ''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.''

These truths point out the superior understanding of the important concept of human rights. It is the understanding that truly protects human rights because, as President Lincoln said, it ''applies to all men at all times.''


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James R. Edwards, Jr., former legislative aide to a member of the House Judiciary Committee, is a Lincoln Fellow in constitutional government with The Claremont Institute.

All pages copyright © 1999 The Claremont Institute