Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mr. Becker (the Mayor of Salt Lake City) Goes to Geneva

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.

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We laud the addition of Mayor Becker to the US delegation in Geneva for the ICCPR review. For many outside the U.S., the question “what was he doing there?” might seem like an easy one: like all government actors, mayors bear responsibility to monitor and implement human rights. Indeed, across the globe, cities have been essential sites for human rights implementation, with mayors leading the charge.

This is because human rights offer a blueprint for addressing critical state and local issues—fair treatment in the criminal justice system, education, access to safe and affordable housing, equal employment opportunities and immigrant inclusion.

In almost every region of the world, coalitions of cities have come together to combat racism and discrimination, embracing the definition of discrimination from the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) – a treaty ratified by the United States in 1994. This is true in Europe, Canada and Latin American, among other regions. By looking to CERD, member cities have acknowledged that discrimination includes “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing” enjoyment of human rights.” This is important because CERD recognizes that discrimination may result unintentionally and calls for proactive steps to identify laws, policies and practices with disparate racial outcomes and eliminate them, improving outcomes for all residents.

In September of 2013, the U.S. Conference of Mayors took a significant step forward by launching a U.S. Coalition of Cities Against Racism and Discrimination, in partnership with the State Department and UNESCO. As its first initiative, the Coalition announced a 10-Point Plan of Action that its member-cities have committed to implement. This initiative is a concrete entry point for U.S. cities to embrace human rights principles and use CERD locally, joining the existing global network of cities.

A number of cities have already integrated CERD principles in law and policy. In November 2011, the City Council of Madison passed a resolution recognizing housing as a human right and prioritized efforts to meet basic housing needs in the city. The City Council noted Madison’s obligations under CERD to eliminate policies that discriminate based on race and committed to “affirmatively further” fair housing in the city. Berkeley, CA has engaged in efforts to document and report on CERD compliance. And, in Eugene, Oregon, the City’s Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan explicitly identifies the incorporation of human rights principles into the city’s policies as a way to promote city leadership. Eugene’s efforts to advance human rights have received strong support from Mayor Kitty Piercy, and the city’s Human Rights Commission is empowered to educate the community on CERD.

By embracing human rights, mayors can strengthen and expand existing initiatives to ensure dignity and opportunity for all. The U.S. Conference of Mayors laid the groundwork for advancing CERD implementation at their June 2013 annual conference, through a resolution committing to uphold and promote international human rights.

Of course, mayors can’t do this work alone. Effectively fulfilling human rights requires that all levels of government work together, in partnership with local communities to craft durable solutions to local problems. Federal support, in the form of education and training, resources and dedicated staff to monitor and share effective human rights practices are necessary for success. Indeed, that is why Mayor Becker and his colleague Yolanda Francisco-Nez from the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office of Diversity and Human Rights called for this exact type of support in a consultation with the United States the day before the ICCPR review. These recommendations echo what state and local human rights agencies around the country have been calling for since 2009. Indeed, state and local agencies submitted a joint shadow report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee to emphasize that the lack of federal support for state and local human rights implementation has led to myriad gaps in human rights protections. The report documents that while over a dozen jurisdictions have adopted human rights initiatives, the impact of resource constraints on local government are severe and federal support is critical to ensure that state and local actors have the capacity and tools to bring human rights home.

Human rights implementation is a long term project that requires innovation and commitment at all levels of government. Mayors can lead the way as they have done on climate change and other critical human rights issues.

Posted by: JoAnn Kamuf Ward | Mar 20, 2014 9:15:16 AM

When JoAnn Kauf Ward posted her excellent comment to the Wednesday blog post on local participation in international reviews (Mr. Becker (Mayor of Salt Lake City) Goes to Geneva), the system stripped the interesting hyperlinks that she’d provided.

Here are the urls for some of the links she provided:

For a human rights report by a coalition of mayors in Europe:

For information on the U.S. Coalition of Cities Against Racism and Discrimination:

For the Coalition’s 10 point plan:

For the human rights resolution passed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors:

For the shadow report to the UN Human Rights Committee, Closing the Gap, prepared by a coalition of local governments:

Posted by: Martha Davis | Mar 22, 2014 12:29:22 PM

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