Wednesday, March 19, 2014
The U.S. delegation to the recent UN review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR included an unusual member: Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, Utah. In the recent past, U.S. delegations have consisted of federal representatives from, for example, the Department of State and the Department of Justice. That makes sense, since the federal government is the sovereign that is obligated to ensure compliance with international treaty norms. So what was Mayor Becker doing there?
As reported from Geneva by Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty, a major topic of the Committee's questioning concerned the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. While U.S. officials offered vague assurances that they were working on the issue, Mayor Becker testified concretely concerning Salt Lake City's progressive policy of building housing rather than resorting to criminalization, an approach which has reportedly reduced homelessness by 75%.
Mayor Becker's testimony to the Human Rights Committee hints at the rising interest of local governments, both in the U.S. and internationally, in developing policies informed by human rights. In addition to its homelessness policies, the Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission website also links to excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Mayor readily embraces human rights approaches. While the prime example of local engagement with international norms in the U.S. remains San Francisco's adoption of CEDAW, there are a growing number of other models. For example, cities like Chicago, have pledged to hold themselves to the standards of the Children's Rights Convention in adopting local policies. The Columbia Human Rights Institute's excellent report titled Bringing Human Rights Home: How State and Local Governments Can Use Human Rights to Advance Local Policy provides a roster of relevant case studies of such local initiatives.
It's easy enough for U.S. cities and other localities to offer examples of successful policies and engage with human rights reviews through shadow reports or even as members of official federal delegations. But as the Human Rights Committee observed in Geneva, a few successful local models are not enough to satisfy the comprehensive federal obligations under the ICCPR.
At the same time, even localities that have embraced human rights norms are rarely under any enforceable obligation to observe those norms. Some U.S. cities have joined the Human Rights Cities movement and touted their commitment to human rights, yet status as a Human Rights City doesn't require any external assessment or review of local processes. Further, the UN itself doesn't reach localities in any formal way. For example, when the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water and Sanitation intervened in Sacramento, California, to press for recognition of the rights of a homeless community there, it was a rare instance of international involvement in local policymaking. But even then, the Special Rapporteur had no legal mechanism to invoke, but could simply highlight Sacramento's negative example on the international stage.
As local governments become more active internationally, there is an opportunity to learn from the models that they generate, both positive and negative. Mayor Becker's testimony demonstrates the value of shining a light on local successes. But without any federal mechanism for generalizing the successful policies and without any regular process for external scrutiny of local compliance with human rights norms, any progress on expanding human rights protections may be ephemeral. Mayor Becker's trip to Geneva should prompt us to consider whether there are new and better ways to engage localities directly in the full range of international human rights mechanisms.