December 10 was Human Rights Day, named by the United Nations General Assembly in 1950 to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
American University dean Claudio Grossman has devoted much of his career to human rights issues. His leadership of Washington College of Law has helped raise the school’s profile as a top institution to study human rights and pursue successful legal action programs including the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. He spoke with American Today about the subject last week.
Q: How do you define ‘human rights?’
Grossman: The term means to me creating the institutions and norms that allow groups of individuals to develop to the limit of their potential.
Q: Why is Human Rights Day important?
Grossman: It’s a very important day. Violations of human rights continue to exist, but the universal declaration was the first step to establish an international bill of human rights, meaning these rights are not exclusively domestic.
Human beings have established at the international level rights that allow us to measure whether [a country is complying] with important values of human dignity.
Before the Second World War, the way a government treated or mistreated its inhabitants was a matter of domestic sovereignty.
Today we don’t live in a vacuum where somebody says ‘that is none of your business.’ We have a framework that allows people to claim legitimacy for the struggle for human dignity.
Q: Is that an achievable goal, or is it a fight that will go on in perpetuity?
Grossman: Of course it’s achievable. As human beings we are capable of modifying reality. It depends on us.
Q: You are the chair of the United Nations Committee against Torture. Briefly, what that does that body do?
Grossman: The committee is a treaty body created by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Ten independent experts serve under personal capacity and don’t seek or receive instruction. The idea was for this treaty body to accompany and assist states in fulfilling their obligations under the convention.
One hundred forty seven countries have ratified the convention. They report [every four years] on their status of compliance with the obligations laid down in the convention. They present this report; there is a dialogue; and the committee adopts concluding observations and recommendations.
What is the value of that? A treaty body of independent experts indentifies priorities in its dialogue with the states as to behaviors that need to take place. That provides elements for politicians, policy makers, public opinion, to criticize, support, and know what’s going on.
When the U.S. presented its report, there were almost 1,000 editorials in the world.
I made a presentation in the General Assembly of the United Nations. We started doing that last year, and it’s a step forward. Unfortunately, torture continues to exist. The positive side is we don’t have a legal vacuum.
We have more than before a vibrancy of society. We have access to information. In the past countries could say I can torture whoever I want, this is none of your business. Today there is moralization concerning that.
We also hear from individuals who claim their rights under the convention have been violated. Most of the cases concern violations of the prohibition against sending someone to a country where they might be tortured. We can adopt provisional measures [that state] why we are saying you cannot send. We have a tremendous degree of compliance.
Q: What are the major human rights initiatives the law school is involved in?
Grossman: First, we are not a NGO; we engage the world, the community, the nation through legal education. There are matters ingrained in the culture of this institution, including [fighting] discrimination for any reason.
When our founding mothers created this law school, women were not allowed in law schools or the profession because of prejudice. The [culture] said women don’t have the skills to practice law. Thanks to our founding mothers and others that reality was changed.
In our Women and the Law program, we have perhaps the most extensive curricula in the nation on gender studies. We have a master’s in international law and gender studies.
But this is not just a matter for lawyers. People can imagine and contribute to a world where everyone can develop themselves to the limit of their potential. We have done well in identifying the theory. We have not done so well in realizing that theory. That’s the constant challenge. It is not done in one quick movement of the hand.