The Impact of Martin Luther King on International Law

The Impact of Martin Luther King on International Law

Martin Luther King did not intend to impact international law, but he did so nonetheless. His life-long struggle was to secure racial equality in the United States. His non-violent efforts rarely focused on the worldwide struggle against racial injustice.

But on a few occasions he elaborated on the relationship between the civil rights movement and the global struggle for colonial independence. In his Nobel Lecture, for example, he emphasized the connection between the American struggle and the rest of the world. “In one sense the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a relatively small part of a world development…. What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion…. All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land.”

While King did not make overt efforts to promote racial equality through international law, he was a source of inspiration for those who did. King and another black Nobel Peace Laureate, the South African Zulu Chief Albert Lutuli, embodied and symbolized different parts of the global movement for racial equality. The struggle against colonialism, apartheid, and racial injustice were all intertwined as part of a groundswell of support for racial freedom. This movement manifested itself in international law.

By 1964, the United Nations had grown to 115 members, well over double the membership with which it began in 1945. Almost seventy-five percent of these countries were in the developing world, and the debates at the UN were transformed by this new controlling majority of delegates. The UN delegates from developing countries were united in their efforts to combat racial injustice. They were greatly influenced by Martin Luther King’s struggle against racial discrimination within the United States, and particularly galvanized by the racial persecution in South Africa. As discussed in this book by Paul Gordon Lauren, “[w]ith all these violations of racial equality, the new majority of Asian and African delegates decided that it was time for them to do whatever they possibly could to help transform this particular feature of the Universal Declaration into reality.”

The immediate result was the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The Convention was the first major international human rights treaty adopted since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As U.N. Secretary General U Thant put it, “the world has anxiously awaited the completion of other parts of … an International Bill of Human Rights” and this convention represents “a most significant step towards the realization of one of the [United Nations’] long-term goals.”

The civil rights movement also directly affected the United States’ political support for the CERD. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg explicitly linked support for the treaty with the domestic struggle for racial equality. In July 1966, he described the treaty as according “completely with the policy of my government and the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of our citizens.” He said that the United States “has not always measured up to its constitutional heritage of equality … but we have made much progress in the past few years, and while not all our ills have been cured, we are on the march.”

The success of CERD broke the stalemate that had prevented completion of the work on the other major human rights covenants. As Natan Lerner noted in this book, passage of CERD “proved that if the political will existed among the majority, the United Nations could move forward in extending rights and setting standards.” By easily securing passage of a treaty prohibiting racial discrimination, the UN delegates generated momentum the following year for adoption of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESR), the two most important human rights treaties since the Universal Declaration.

Never before in history had so many major human rights treaties been created in such a short time. The struggle against colonialism, apartheid, and racial inequality coalesced in the mid-1960s with the conclusion of groundbreaking international human rights treaties. As a result, international law would never be the same.

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Duncan B. Hollis

For those interested in King’s relationship to the international human rights movement, check out my colleague, Henry Richardson’s take here.