Our nation is running a $1.4 trillion-dollar budget deficit this year. So why is Congress on track to approve more than $1 trillion for “defense” spending, while cutting back services that most countries think of as human rights? Even in the wake of Obama’s landmark health-care legislation, our priorities are out of sync with what the public needs.

Consider this: About 3.5 million Americans–including 1.35 million children–are homeless for significant periods of time over the course of a year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Under U.S. law, American citizens don’t have rights to shelter, food, medical care, or a decent old age. Yet these are human rights, and they’re etched into the United Nations’ Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Albania, Tunisia, Finland, and dozens of other countries have signed on to this document, which of course has gone unratified by the U.S. Senate.

What part of “in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone my enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights and freedom” do our lawmakers reject?

Homelessness isn’t the only indicator that underscores our mistaken priorities. Experts have estimated that at least 20,000 Americans die each year because they lack health insurance and can’t get needed care. And a recent study found that 37 million people in this country sought emergency food assistance from food banks in the Feeding America network last year. That’s roughly one in eight Americans.

Meanwhile, our country positions itself as the world’s leading human rights advocate, ignoring many aspects of what the rest of the world considers to be human rights.

For example, the State Department recently published a report that found Cuba to be violating legal and political rights. The report made no reference to Cuba’s success in housing and feeding its people, or providing them with health care.

The skewed policy of focusing on deficiencies in Cuba while ignoring our own glaring lack of substantive rights has characterized every administration for 30 years. Arizona, like many states suffering from reduced revenues, recently slashed its Children’s Health Insurance Program. About 47,000 kids–all poor, of course–now have no medical coverage.

Self-righteous human rights attacks on other countries don’t help mask glaring needs at home, particularly food and shelter for millions.

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Saul Landau

Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. IPS is a community of public scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the U.S. and globally. www.ips-dc.org

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