International Human Rights


As Jews, we are intimately acquainted with what happens when otherwise good people are silent in the face of political oppression and violence. Our tradition teaches us that human life is sacred because all of humanity is created b'tselem elohim, in the image of God (Gen 1:26). Further, the Torah makes clear that we have an obligation to preserve the sanctity of life by speaking out in response to oppression and brutality in our world. In the Holiness Code, we are told that we "may not stand idly by when [our] neighbor's blood is being shed" (Leviticus 19:16). As the Babylonian Talmud states:

Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b)

The Reform Jewish Movement is committed to fulfilling this obligation by raising awareness of, and speaking out against, human rights abuses wherever they exist.

In a 1939 resolution, the Union for Reform Judaism (then the UAHC) established our commitment to human rights, maintaining that "every human being is entitled to live unmolested and to enjoy inalienable rights in the land in which he was born or in which he has dwelt lawfully."

Since then, we have also spoken out against Apartheid (1979), Sweatshops and Child Labor (1997), the Crisis in Sudan (2004), Global Poverty (2005), and Torture (2005) and worked to promote The Genocide Convention (1979), Human Rights In Cuba (2003), International Religious Freedom (2003), and Workers' Rights in the United States (2005). Most comprehensively, our 1999 Commitment to Africa resolution resolves to promote "basic international human rights, including, but not limited to political organization, free assembly, free speech, health care, family planning and reproductive freedom, education, a healthy environment, women's rights and labor rights, and the elimination of hunger and poverty."

Since the post-World War II emergence of modern international human rights laws and treaties, there have been scores of international agreements enacted establishing the standards by which nations must abide. After the creation of the United Nations and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, treaties were established to protect the rights of women, children, and migrant workers, to end racial discrimination, and to outlaw torture. These became the foundation of international human rights law, a set of international rules on the basis of which individuals and groups can claim rights that are to be protected by governments. Human rights are inherent entitlements which belong to every human being. The UN has adopted over twenty treaties on human rights including, among others:

  • The International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966);
  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948);
  • Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1950);
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965);
  • The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976) —signed but not yet ratified by the U.S.;
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)—signed but not yet ratified by the U.S;
  • Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984);
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)—signed but not yet ratified by the U.S; and
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007) —neither signed nor ratified by the U.S and signed but not yet ratified by Canada.

In addition to these human rights laws, there is another body of international law known as international humanitarian law, which refers to a set of international rules established by treaty or custom that protect human rights during armed conflicts. Humanitarian law ensures that the rights of all persons who may be affected by armed conflict are protected, and limits the means that parties can use during war. International humanitarian law includes the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977.

Governments have the primary obligation to protect human rights in their sovereign territory. In the absence of a national response, the international community has responded to human rights and humanitarian law violations through a variety of legal and political means: the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials, international ad hoc tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, truth commissions in Chile and South Africa, and courts of mixed jurisdiction in Sierra Leone and Cambodia. Additionally, there are several regional human rights bodies around the world, such as the European Court on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which interpret and apply regional human rights documents. The International Court of Justice in The Hague (ICJ), created in 1945, tries countries, rather than individuals, for war crimes. All UN member states are automatically parties to the court. Despite accepting compulsory jurisdiction by the ICJ in 1946, the United States withdrew in 1986 and now accepts the Court's jurisdiction only on a case-by-case basis.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created as the first permanent international court to try individuals for crimes against humanity. 1 The ICC, which hears cases upon referral from the UN Security Council or upon acceptance of the Court's jurisdiction by a State Party or a State, is able to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against humanity who would otherwise go unpunished. Currently, the ICC is formally investigating human rights atrocities committed in Uganda and those responsible for the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. The Court announced in January 2007 that it was ready to proceed with its first trial against warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cases likely to be considered in the near future concern individuals involved in atrocities in the Central African Republic and the Ivory Coast.

The Rome Statute is the international provision that sets the legal basis for the International Criminal Court. Canada has already ratified the Rome Statue, but the United States has not yet ratified it on the grounds that it would curtail U.S.sovereignty and put U.S.soldiers deployed in conflicts or as peacekeepers across the globe at risk of prosecution. Supporters respond that the United States had a major role in the establishment of the legal precedents of the ICC, including the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials; they also point to the success of the existing safeguards, such as the doctrine of "complimentarity" through which the ICC defers to national courts in countries that are willing and able to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed by their own citizens. They also point to the limited jurisdiction of the Court and its record of rejecting inappropriate cases, such as the dismissal of all cases against UK soldiers in Iraq.

Human rights groups have been particularly troubled by U.S. threats to cut aid to nations cooperating with the ICC and to otherwise attempt to obstruct the ICC's functioning. We acknowledge and are concerned by the political posturing of international bodies that have disproportionately and inaccurately singled out Israel for criticism. However, we believe that the wisest way to protect the United States and Israel's interests, and to advance the cause of international justice, is to maintain U.S. engagement with the International Criminal Court and to work cooperatively with other governments to ensure that the ICC remains a court of integrity and fairness.

Despite an increasingly sophisticated international legal system, human rights abuses continue around the world. Today we are faced with genocide in Sudan; trafficking of men, women and children; abusive labor conditions; discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and political opinion; and approximately 150 countries that still practice torture or ill-treatment of captives. 2 Although the United Nations has attempted to confront these challenges, the UN Human Rights Council, established in April 2006 to replace the failed Human Rights Commission, continues to fail to act decisively on severe human rights abuses such as those in Darfur, while condemning Israel on multiple occasions. In addition to its unbalanced approach, a number of member states on the Council have very poor human rights records.

As North American Jews, we enjoy unparalleled religious, political, and social freedom. Our Jewish values and history teach us that our privilege must not blind us to the millions of people around the world who are denied fundamental human rights. For these reasons, a comprehensive declaration of our commitment to international human rights and the tools used to achieve and protect such rights is necessary.

Therefore , the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

1. Call upon the United States, Canada, and all the governments of the world to:

  1. End all human rights abuses;
  2. Ratify international treaties, conventions and declarations ("international human rights agreements") that promote human rights;
  3. Ensure that the content, interpretation and enforcement of all such international human rights agreements treat all countries fairly and do not inappropriately single out Israel or any other country;
  4. Hold themselves and each other to commitments arising from their ratification of international agreements as they apply to human rights;

2. Call upon the United States and Canadian governments to:

  1. Abide by the human rights principles of the international human rights agreements to which they are signatories;
  2. Abide by international humanitarian law; and
  3. Support the enforcement of human rights and international humanitarian law around the world;

3. Call upon the United States government to ratify the international human rights agreements it has signed, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to sign and ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities;

4. Call upon the Canadian government to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities;

5. Support appropriate actions to protect human rights by the International Court of Justice, ad hoc tribunals, truth commissions, mixed courts, or other regionally appropriate bodies;

6. Support the International Criminal Court and call for the United States to ratify the Rome Statute; and

7. Promote appropriate actions to implement and enforce international human rights law and international humanitarian law such as targeted sanctions, arms embargoes, deployment of peacekeeping forces, humanitarian assistance, and socially responsible business and investment practices that will create a sustainable peace in conflict areas and eliminate the circumstances that allow human rights abuses to occur.

[1] In contrast to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which tries countries, the International Criminal Court (ICC) holds individuals accountable for gross human rights abuses.

[2] Amnesty International. .