The Ad Committee on the Human Rights and Genocide Treaties was organized in the spring of 1964 by some 35 national voluntary organizations for the purpose of encouraging the United States government to commit itself, through ratification of four United Nations conventions (dealing with Genocide, Slavery, Forced Labor and the Political Rights of Women), to the building and strengthening of a body of international law in the field of human rights. The first such measure, concerned with the basic, inviolable right to life itself, was the Genocide Convention. Developed in the highly charged atmosphere of the years immediately following the Holocaust, it was adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and signed, but never ratified, by the United States. Despite President John F. Kennedy’s support for ratification of all four conventions, expressed in addresses to the U.S. Senate and the UN General Assembly in the summer and fall of 1963, Congressional resistance to ratification proved to be deeply entrenched. The Committee’s task was to overcome that resistance, through direct lobbying, publicity campaigns and outreach to sympathetic sectors of the U.S. population. The campaign was to last much longer, and was strewn with more bitter disappointments, than the organizers of the Committee could have imagined.
The organizations comprising the Ad Hoc Committee represented a wide range of civil liberties, religious, labor and fraternal groups, among them the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service Committee, the American Veterans Committee, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO, the Jewish Labor Committee, the NAACP, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the United Church of Christ, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Workmen’s Circle, the Ukrainian National Association and several individual trade unions. Through the National Conference of Christians and Jews the Committee forged close ties with the social action wings of a number of Christian and Jewish denominations. The United Nations Association put the Committee in touch with liberal supporters of the UN nationwide, and by using its connections to the AFL-CIO and the Jewish Labor Committee the Committee garnered support throughout the labor movement.
The day-to-day work of the Committee was coordinated by its able Executive Secretary, Betty Kaye Taylor. Born in Freeport, Long Island, Betty Kaye attended Freeport High School and the Morris High School in the Bronx. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1946 and went to work as an organizer, based in Chicago, for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Beginning in her high-school years she had been a political activist as a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, and was eventually recommended by Daniel Bell to become an employee of the Jewish Labor Committee. She worked with JLC staffer (and Warsaw Ghetto survivor) Jerzy Glicksman in Chicago and transferred to the JLC’s national office in New York in 1948. There she coordinated the work of the JLC’s field representatives, edited Labor Reports (a JLC news service) and later became an assistant to the National Director. Bette Kaye Taylor remained on the JLC staff during her years of service to the Ad Hoc Committee. When she retired from the JLC in 1981, the work of the Committee was carried on by Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee. Throughout the life of the Committee its work was greatly assisted by William Korey, foreign affairs director of B’nai B’rith and a leading scholar in the field of international human rights.
In the course of its years of work, the Committee won the support of an impressive roster of prominent individuals, in and out of Congress. But its efforts met a long string of defeats. Although President Truman had urged ratification of the convention, xenophobia, isolationism, public indifference and the exigencies of superpower politics proved to be insuperable obstacles during four decades of Democratic and Republican administrations alike. In 1967 the Committee’s staunchest Congressional champion, Senator William Proxmire, delivered the first of innumerable speeches (sometimes daily statements) on the subject over the next twenty years. Throughout the horrors of Biafra, East Pakistan and Rwanda, the Senate continued to turn a deaf ear. After the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia became public several senators joined the battle for ratification, still to no avail. Ironically, as historian Brian Urquhart has pointed out (NY Review of Books, April 25, 2002, p.13), it was in the wake of the public relations disaster of President Ronald Reagan’s visit to the SS graves at Bitburg, Germany, that the treaty was finally ratified. Even this gesture of concession to public outrage was undermined by a number of provisions immunizing the U.S. against the possibility of ever being charged with genocide. The vote in the Senate was 83 in favor, 11 against and 6 not voting; the U.S. was the 98th country to ratify the convention.
- William Korey, “The United States and the Genocide Convention: Leading Advocate and Leading Obstacle,” Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 11 (1997), pp. 271-290.
From the guide to the Ad Hoc Committee on the Human Rights and Genocide Treaties Records, Bulk, 1960-1979, 1943-1984, (Tamiment Library / Wagner Archives)