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Treaty Supremacy, International Legal Process, and the Origins of the International Human Rights System

Treaty Supremacy, International Legal Process, and the Origins of the International Human Rights System

by Peggy McGuinness [This is the seventh post in our symposium this week on treaty supremacy.]

I share with the preceding commentators’ praise of David Sloss’s book, The Death of Treaty Supremacy, and agree with their assessment that it is an important work of legal history and of doctrinal clarity on the question of treaty supremacy as a feature of federalism and the doctrine of NSE as a feature of separation of powers.   I would even go so far as to argue that David’s book undermines his own sub-title, in that his careful archival research and close reading of the cases and commentary reveal that this change was not-so-invisible after all.

My comments focus on David’s retelling of the efforts to apply the UN Charter – the foundational instrument in the post-WW II international human rights system – as a legal source in civil rights cases in the U.S. David’s thorough research on the 1952 Fujii case is worth reading on its own, especially for those who teach or write about international human rights. Fujii was not only one of the first cases in U.S. law to attempt to draw on the newly birthed international human rights instruments (the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted as a non-binding Gen. Assembly resolution) as a source of law, it was one of the first cases anywhere in the world. His argument that the shift toward adoption of the NSE doctrine to shield states from treaty supremacy created a significant change in original constitutional understandings is a convincing one. And it is certainly true that the outcome in Fujii was pushed by some of the least admirable elements of the U.S. legal profession in the mid 20th Century, among them leaders of the ABA who stood as staunch supporters of Jim Crow. But I would argue that, from the perspective of interpretation and application of the UN Charter, as adopted and understood by the U.S. and the other founders of the UN, the case was not only correctly decided, but by refusing to read the Charter as creating self-executing and judicially enforceable rights, actually worked to allow the growth of a universal international human rights system that not only includes the U.S. (despite our sense of constitutional exceptionalism), but many other states that would be reluctant to join a system that had at its core a vertical system of supranational enforcement.

In his excellent history of the case, David points out that respected international law scholars served as advocates on each side of the case – those that would uphold the discriminatory California Land Act, and those that would strike it down as inconsistent with U.S. obligations under the UN Charter. Manley O. Hudson was on the states’ rights side of the argument, whereas Oscar Shachter (together with constitutional law scholar Quincy Wright) argued that conflicting state law had to yield to the human rights provisions of the Charter. Apart from the human rights purposes expressed in the preamble, the debate was over the effect to be given Art. 56, which states “All Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the Organization for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Art. 55.”   Art. 55, states, in part, that the “United Nations shall promote….(c) universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” Manley’s view, articulated in a short commentary in AJIL in 1950, was that the term “promote” in Art. 55 “does not create any specific obligation for a Member of the Organization.” Further, the pledge of Art. 56 is one limited to “cooperation with the United Nations,” and the “extent and form of cooperation are to be determined by the government of each Member.” The best evidence that the drafters of the Charter did not intend to create direct rules enforceable in courts of the members states is what came after the Charter: (1) the creation of the UN HR Commission , which drafted the UDHR as a non-binding normative declaration; and (2) the process underway by 1950 to draft the Human Rights Covenant (which alter morphs into the ICCPR and ICESCR, which would flesh out in even more detail than the UDHR the content of the rights obligations, including mechanisms for enforcement at the international and, potentially, domestic level.

It is interesting to see how radical Shachter’s view – of direct judicial enforceability of Charter norms — seems today. The most recent Commentary on the Charter of the UN (3rd Edition, Simma, Khan, Nolte, Paulu) reflects 60-plus years of practice that, more or less, tracks Hudson’s view on the text. And, remarkably, the commentary to Art. 55 (c) is a recitation of the successes and failures of the UN human rights organs and the UN treaty-based human rights system.

From a pragmatic internationalist perspective the Fujii doctrine has, in David’s own words (p. 218), “helped mediate the tension between human rights and states’ rights” in ways that enabled the Eisenhower administration to hold back the Bricker Amendment, and in so doing help save the international human rights system at the time of its fragile birth. This constitutional change in treaty supremacy has, in fact, facilitated the ability of every U.S. administration that followed Eisenhower’s to participate in and influence the creation of mature international human rights system that we see today. This constitutional shift has permitted the ebb and flow of U.S. participation in the human rights system, on terms that have reflected the ongoing ambivalence the U.S. polity has toward the internationalization of rights. Keeping in mind that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue,” this ebb and flow has been disappointing to those who would wish to see fuller integration of international human rights law in U.S. law. But this flexibility seems to me to reflect, rather than diminish, democratic transparency and accountability for U.S. human rights policies abroad and practices at home. Perhaps more important, it allowed the U.S. to push forward as a leader within the complex process of creating and institutionalizing an international human rights system, one that contains two methods of claim enforcement: traditional interstate enforcement of norms and, where states consent, application of supranational rules by courts.

It’s quite possible that I am falling into the trap of 20/20 hindsight and reading the early history of IHR, despite its failed promise, as inevitable progress. But it might be worth conducting this thought experiment: What would have happened to US engagement with the UN and the burgeoning civil rights movement in the US, if the Fujii court had applied the UN Charter as the basis to invalidate the California Land Law? Perhaps it is better to serve as what Louis Henkin called a “flying buttress” to the cathedral of human rights, than to have abandoned the church altogether.

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