*Editor’s note: On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.
Aleksandr Vorobiev, a researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, discusses why the U.S. interpretation of human rights protection is not universal.
Protecting human rights is one of the most important responsibilities of modern states. However, interpretations of human rights vary significantly from country to country and region to region. Despite that, the U.S. wants to actively impose its understanding of human rights on the rest of the international community. And to achieve this goal, the U.S. uses both persuasion and coercion on those who disagree and doubt its rationale. Hence, a reasonable question arises: Are human rights really so well protected inside the U.S.?
Clearly, racial inequality remains a problem in the U.S. Although racial segregation was legally abolished in the 1960s, racism is still one of the unresolved problems of American society, according to studies by U.S. nongovernmental organizations.
America has a long-standing tradition of racism. Although the Declaration of Independence of 1776 stated that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed with certain inalienable rights,” in a legal sense, these rights applied only to white people for a long time. Native Americans, for example, were not considered members of the American nation until 1924. For centuries they were massacred, and in the 19th century, they were forcibly relocated to reservations in the least economically attractive parts of the country in the extreme West and the Midwest.
In many ways, the fate of Black people in the U.S. was similar. For example, the Jim Crow laws were in effect until the 1960s. These laws established racial segregation in schools, hospitals, hotels and stores in the American South. They also regulated the so-called sundown towns, which non-white people were required to leave before sunset. But, of course, eventually these laws became a thing of the past.
Nevertheless, even in the 21st century, the average household income of a Black family is one-third less than that of a white household. The poverty rate among Black Americans in the U.S. is twice as high as the national average. In addition, 70% of Black American children are born out of wedlock.
Moreover, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, Black Americans make up less than 13% of the country’s population. Yet, they comprise nearly a third of all prisoners and account for half of the nation’s homicides.
As such, these factors indicate that the level of social inequality among Black Americans is much higher than among their white counterparts, and the government measures to eradicate this inequality are clearly insufficient. Furthermore, the concentration of the Black population in “Black” neighborhoods and certain “Black” states serves only to entrench social inequality and isolate Black Americans further. The fact that racial problems are far from being resolved is also evidenced by the recent explosive growth in popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Another issue causing serious debate within American society is the right to bear arms, guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted back in 1791. The Small Arms Survey, a Swiss think tank, estimates that U.S. citizens own nearly 400 million guns. Moreover, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the U.S. is the world leader in the number of guns per capita: There are more than 80 guns per 100 people. Yemen is second on that list.
Attempts to limit the circulation of firearms in previous decades were unsuccessful, mostly adding more technicalities and exceptions. For example, in 1986, the U.S. authorities banned the sale of automatic firearms to citizens. Notably, however, most U.S. states do not require a license to purchase firearms. Moreover, there is no national database of gun owners, nor is secondary market circulation regulated.
This problem has significant social implications. For example, each year about 2.5 million U.S. citizens use firearms in self-defense, and nearly 10% of all homicides result in the assailant’s death. Moreover, although the homicide rate in the U.S. is significantly lower today than it was a few decades ago, the percentage of homicides involving firearms is gradually increasing — it is at an all-time high of over 70%.
According to proponents of stricter gun laws, people in the U.S. are 25 times more likely to die from a gunshot wound than those in other developed countries. And according to a study by the International Journal of Criminology, the number of mass shootings in America is 10-11 times higher than in other developed countries. The most recent high-profile case occurred in late March 2023, when a gunman shot and killed three children and three adults at a Nashville school.
Obviously, the right of some U.S. citizens to effective self-defense cannot and should not infringe on the lives and safety of others.
However, the free circulation of firearms has another negative social impact, as it causes increased police brutality in the case of any suspected resistance. That is, if the police officers suspect that a citizen may be armed, they can “act preventively” and may well injure or even shoot a person who appears dangerous to them. Such “errors” are not uncommon.
Ultimately, such incidents increase the popularity of social movements such as BLM and cause a severe rise in social tensions in American society.
Nor should we forget the U.S. record on women’s rights. In June 2022, the Supreme Court made a historic decision, declaring the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling unconstitutional. This decision dealt a massive blow to abortion rights in the U.S. As a reminder, until the 1970s, abortions were only allowed on demand in six states. However, in 1971, a pregnant Texas resident, who went by the legal alias Jane Roe, filed a lawsuit against local district attorney Henry Wade. The legal battle resulted in the landmark 1973 decision to allow abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy and gave states the right to impose restrictions on second-trimester abortions.
However, in 2022, the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, overturned its own half-century-old decision, allowing individual states to decide on the issue of abortion rights. Consequently, authorities in two dozen U.S. states have banned abortion or plan to do so. At the same time, in the states that have already decided to take such a step, abortions are prohibited even in cases of rape or incest. Ten more states are still undecided, and the two dozen remaining states have decided to maintain their residents’ abortion rights.
Restricting abortion rights in the U.S. causes two significant problems. First, overturning Roe v. Wade severely limits the right of a substantial proportion of American women to make decisions about their own futures and may ultimately have a severe impact on their reproductive health. Second, placing restrictions on abortion rights further widens socioeconomic inequality. That is, wealthier American women would be able to travel to another state for the abortion procedure and subsequent rehabilitation, while the poor would not be able to do so.
Indeed, U.S. authorities’ interpretations of human rights are primarily conditioned by the circumstances of the historical and social development of American society and any given state. Therefore, such interpretations can hardly be considered universal, let alone be imposed on others. Moreover, many human rights, considered fundamental elsewhere, are controversial for Americans themselves, as evidenced by the vigorous debates over firearms circulation, abortion rights and the sporadic outbreaks of racial conflicts.
In addition, the American interpretation of human rights prioritizes civil and political rights above socioeconomic and cultural rights. This is probably because American politicians and citizens consider such issues as the right to bear arms, for example, to be more fundamental in ensuring a citizen’s personal freedom and independence.
On the other hand, the problems of the huge (by the standards of a developed country) number of homeless people in the U.S., or of a large proportion of American citizens who do not have access to adequate health care due to the inability to afford medical insurance, are on the relative periphery of public attention.
The author holds a Ph. D. in History and is a Director of the Center for Public Diplomacy and World Policy Analysis. The author’s opinion may not necessarily reflect the views of Izvestia’s editorial board.