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Published as Chapter 8 in The Sword and the Scales: The United States and International Courts and Tribunals, Cesare P.R. Romano, ed.

It is frequently said that the United States has a paradoxical human rights policy. This Article takes a closer look at this vision from the perspective of U.S. engagement with international human rights treaty bodies, the quasi-adjudicatory expert committees or commissions that exercise supervisory jurisdiction over the U.S. human rights record. Contrary to popular perception that the U.S. thumbs its nose at these bodies, the U.S. in fact engages quite actively with their human rights procedures.

To untangle the associated issues, the Article proceeds in five parts. Part I begins by reviewing the current legal framework that structures U.S. human rights treaty body engagements at the national and international levels. Part II then examines the specific ways the U.S. in fact engages with the three principal supervisory competences exercised by UN, OAS, and ILO treaty body systems: periodic reporting, quasi-adjudication, and promotional activities. Part III considers the countervailing push-pull pressures that influence and shape U.S. engagement policy at the foreign-policy and domestic-policy levels, respectively, while Part IV identifies the three principal mediating techniques the U.S. employs to accommodate these competing pressures. These mediating techniques, which draw heavily, if selectively, on the formalized rules of international human rights law's subsidiarity principle allow the U.S. to pursue a framework policy toward treaty body engagement that at once permits active U.S. engagement with international procedures, appeases conservative critiques of such engagement (at both domestic and foreign-policy levels), and allows the U.S. to remain technically compliant with its externally-oriented treaty obligations.

What it does not do, as currently pursued, is facilitate internal domestic reflection on the nation's treaty-based human rights commitments. Indeed, responsive to the dominant pressures exerted on U.S. policymakers from both within and without government (from institutionalists, realists, and insulationists), these mediating techniques draw on only half of subsidiary's blueprint. Part V discusses this conflict, the structural opportunities for addressing it, and the importance of giving the principle of subsidiarity its full and intended meaning in international human rights law. The piece concludes by looking at where U.S. policy can be expected to lead in coming years, as U.S. policymakers continue to chart a middle course through difficult and shifting pressures. This middle course is one that does not reject, but rather solidly embraces supervisory human rights treaty body processes, albeit under a vision of their jurisdiction as strictly subsidiary to domestic decision-making processes. The challenge for domestic advocates is to ensure that this subsidiarity principle is embraced in its full dimensionality, not only in its negative facets. An outline of how this might be institutionally pursued and structured in the United States, particularly through the establishment of an executive focal point on treaty implementation and a national human rights commission with a comprehensive monitoring mandate, is discussed in Part V.


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international courts, international tribunals, treaty bodies, human rights, subsidiarity, foreign policy, exceptionalism, realists, institutionalists, insulationists, incorporationists


Human Rights Law | Law

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This material has been published in The Sword and the Scales: The United States and International Courts and Tribunals edited by Cesare P. R. Romano. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press 2009.

From Paradox to Subsidiarity: The United States and Human Rights Treaty Bodies