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Exceptional rights, or not

By Christine Buckley, CLAS Today

Shareen Hertel Photography by Christine Buckley

Shareen Hertel
Photography by Christine Buckley

While the United States has promoted involvement in human rights issues across the globe since the 1940s, social scientists claim that in many areas, it has resisted applying these standards at home or aligning foreign policy with these standards abroad.

A new book by UConn social scientists puts forward a history of these controversies and shows that slowly, U.S. organizations are beginning to view issues at home through the lens of human rights.

Shareen Hertel, associate professor of political science in CLAS, and Kathryn Libal, assistant professor of community organization in the School of Social Work, spoke at the UConn Co-Op recently about the new edited book that they edited, Human Rights in the United States: Beyond Exceptionalism.

“This is a welcome and a wake-up call,” Hertel told the standing-room crowd. “There are grassroots and non-governmental organizations using the human rights framework when our own legal system is not.”

Covering 300 years before the present, the book outlines the history of the human rights concept in the U.S. The notion of exceptionalism stems from the idea that although the U.S. advocates abroad for such human rights as the right to food, shelter or decent wages, it also assumes that at home, we’ve exceeded these laws, so they don’t apply to us. This assumption, says Hertel, is vastly untrue.

“We’re trying to get people to rethink what’s accepted,” said Hertel, who also received a 2011 UConn grant for her work on law, social protest, and the right to food in India. “In the U.S., there’s a profound lack of understanding of the United Nations system. These laws are not just about preventing discrimination, but about ensuring adequacy.”beyondexceptionalism

Each contributed chapter addresses a particular case of human rights advocacy in the U.S., such as the rights of the disabled, indigenous peoples, single-mother families, people in prison, the gay community, and those displaced by natural disasters, in particular Hurricane Katrina.

These examples are particularly needed in the human rights curriculum, said Hertel, because nearly all college courses in human rights – UConn included – have focused on other countries.

“It’s a hopeful book in the end,” said Libal. “If we empower people with this knowledge, they will feel compelled to make a difference.”

New Human Rights Survey

Denmark ranks at the top of the latest respect for human rights survey conducted annually by a researcher in CLAS and a colleague at SUNY Binghamton.


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