The purpose of this project is to raise awareness about current and potential threats to human rights in the United States through the personal stories of lawyers on the front lines. The website was launched on December 10, 2016 in honor of international Human Rights Day.
My grandmother is every bit as witty, graceful, and intelligent at ninety-nine as she was when I first met her forty years ago. She marvels at the way in which people can now keep in touch over the internet during wartime, since her generation had to rely on “V mail” - handwritten letters photocopied onto microfilm to be sent through censors and over thousands of miles. She never knew whether my grandfather was alive or dead, even when she received a letter.
After World War II, people like my grandparents felt relieved and guilty for their safe, happy lives. The relief was palpable, but the guilt came from ignoring, or wanting to ignore, the terrible reports that came out of Europe. They used that guilt productively, however, and joined with millions of their peers to support the new United Nations project. Above all, they felt the war and its atrocities had taught them that reason, law, and intelligence could overcome fear, humiliation, and insecurity. Like others of their era, they believed that the Nuremberg trials demonstrated to the world how a strong rule of law put limits on state power, and they recognized international legal treaties as the next step in solidifying that victory of reason over violence.
The United States played a key role in defining the post-World War II global landscape, and it did so by aligning itself with the belief that reason and law were more powerful than fear and ignorance: the absolute condemnation of genocide, coupled with related prohibitions against torture, discrimination, and slavery, ushered in a new era of globalized legal agreement. As the Cold War proceeded to fracture pragmatic wartime alliances, the US veered towards those rights it held most dear: the right to free political speech, to assembly, and to a freely elected democratic government. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and its allies focused their attention on the other leg upon which post-War peace was built, which included rights of education, work, and an adequate standard of living.
The current international human rights regime exists because of that moment in time. It has grown over the last several decades from the initial clear and simple statement of human dignity and rights that is articulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the more complex web of legal obligations and relationships that exists through treaties and customary law. While most lawyers trained in the United States learn little, or nothing, about those treaty obligations and their relationship to our domestic protections for human dignity and respect, those international obligations are nonetheless an integral part of the globalized world in which we live, and they exist because of the role the United States has played in forming that world.
Contemporary human rights law extends far beyond the initial declarations and treaties of the late 1940s. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is perhaps the best summary of that legal moment, and it provides a simple and clear outline (modeled to some extent on the American Declaration of Independence) of the non-negotiable importance of basic human dignity. Although the UDHR lists many different specific rights, the document taken as a whole speaks to the overarching value of humanity, and the commitment of the world to valuing that humanity, even (or especially) in the face of discord.
There are now many more treaties that provide additional detail and substance to the simple rights outlined by the UDHR. Those treaties deal with entire baskets of rights, as with the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICCPR and ICESCR, respectively). They also address the rights of specific portions of the population: there is a treaty on the rights of children, the rights of women, the rights of persons with disabilities, the rights of migrant workers and their families, and the rights of those subjected to racial discrimination. Torture is singled out as a particularly abhorrent practice under contemporary international law, and it not only has its own treaty (the Convention Against Torture), but also exists as a crime under international law that has individual accountability.
There are other act-oriented treaties, including enforced disappearances and a large variety of rules regarding the treatment of prisoners and others (the Geneva Conventions). In addition, there has been a proliferation in international treaty and customary law that governs how nations interact with one another, including everything from agreements about how to interpret treaties (the Vienna Convention) to agreements about how to handle disagreements over trade agreements. In other words, in the decades since my grandparents stopped sending V-mail and started to contribute to the daily lives that characterized their generation, international law has flourished, proliferated, and continued to provide rules (even when broken) about the fundamental dignity and respect that all human beings are entitled to receive.
The essays featured on this website speak to the ways in which attorneys have personally encountered the struggle between violence and the rule of law. They demonstrate some of the reasons why many people in the United States are currently feeling threatened by the recent election, but also speak to our enduring commitment to the rule of law and our hope for humanity.
The contributors to this website are members of Lawyers for Good Government, a grassroots organization of lawyers, law students, and activists who joined together after the 2016 presidential election. Led by founder Traci Feit Love, we stand ready to defend human, civil, and constitutional rights while fighting proactively for a government worthy of the American people.
Together, we recognize the need to prioritize human dignity over fear, and to engage in well-reasoned legal advocacy in the face of threats to our humanity.
To learn more about Lawyers for Good Government, visit our Facebook Page.