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Clinton’s agenda fails to meet the moral demands of the time


President Clinton’s seventh State of the Union address on Jan. 19 has been hailed as perhaps his best, a bravura performance that almost certainly put the final nail in the coffin of the effort to impeach him.

But if one pulls back from the politics of the moment and takes a broader view, the agenda Clinton outlined seems remarkably deficient, given the moral imperatives facing us. People of faith and citizens with a global vision have a right and a duty to demand more.

One omission has to be Latin America. The United States still trains military leaders for a continent that does not need them. The president should follow the lead of President Carter, who signed and urged the Senate to ratify the American Covenant on Human Rights.

The absence of the United States from the tribunal in San José preaches to the 400 million people in Latin America that the mighty nation to the north does not care about them and does not play by the rules of international law.

If the president could persuade the Senate to ratify the American Covenant, the United States would have a place on the Commission and Court on Human Rights based in Costa Rica. But it could also be sued in this court for its illegal involvement in the evil deeds done by Pinochet during his 20 years as dictator of Chile. In addition, citizens of some 30 nations in Latin America could sue entities in the United States for violations of their internationally guaranteed human rights.

There are other human rights treaties that Clinton could advance. The United States still has not ratified the Covenant on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Nor has the United States consented to the provisions of the Covenant on the Rights of the Child. Somalia is the only other nation that has not ratified.

If the Senate refuses to ratify the covenant on discrimination against women, it should be asked once again to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. With the leadership of Carter in the late 1970s, both the House and the Senate mustered a two-thirds vote to add the ERA to the Constitution (it obtained approval of 35 of the needed 38 states).

Clinton’s 77-minute speech failed to mention areas where the United States is refusing to be guided by world law. It is arguable that the death penalty is now in violation of customary international law. Capital punishment has been rejected by all the nations of Europe and Latin America. Equally shameful is the fact that the United States now executes more persons who were under 18 when they killed than any other country.

The president said some welcome things about the United Nations. But there were no adequate explanations for the fact that the United States remains outside of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; that America does not participate in most of the 19 U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world or why the United States ranks 22nd out of the 22 nations that give aid to underdeveloped countries, based on the U.N. formula for measuring such assistance.

Clinton made no mention of Carter’s Commission on World Hunger, which in 1980 recommended that the primary focus of U.S. foreign policy should be the eradication of hunger in the world. That policy was not adopted in the Reagan or Bush years. As a result, 35,000 children die needlessly every day.

Clinton made no reference to the various international standards on the rights of prisoners and the almost certain violation of those rights that occur in federal and state prisons in this country every day. The United States has tripled its prison population since 1980, almost surely defying international law by imposing unduly stringent penalties. Clinton, who is very sensitive to the rights of African-Americans, should be disturbed by the fact that 52 percent of all U.S. prisoners are black.

All of these issues are the heart of Catholic social teaching. They are also essential to the body of international law on human rights that has evolved over the past two generations.

The Democratic Party can claim not a little credit for creating and advancing these initiatives. But they seem to be eclipsed by a Democratic Party that understandably does not want to lose elections as they did when Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were defeated.

The United States should listen to the voices that come to us from the persecuted and poor. The United States, after all, was the principal architect of the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The vision of international solidarity that led America to these magnificent creations was not as visible in Clinton’s address a month ago as it should have been.

Americans have always been visionaries. We need to be crusaders for justice and pilgrims for peace. George Santayana put it well: "Being an American is in and of itself almost a moral condition."

In view of the fact that 800 million children of God are chronically malnourished, the United States -- with only 4 percent of the world’s population but consuming 40 percent of its resources -- needs to spread more love.

The president has 23 months left in his term. He should be persuaded to leave a bolder legacy than the one he embraced on Jan. 19.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999