Friday, May 16, 2014

Tennessee is Fighting Hard for Human Rights

Guest blogger JoAnn Kamuf Ward of the Columbia Human Rights Institute reports on the work of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, holding a series of statewide hearings on the status of human rights.  JoAnn writes:

In 1967, just a year before he was assassinated, Dr. King proclaimed that “we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights." Almost 40 years later, basic human rights remain elusive for many Americans.

In many communities, human rights are even met with open hostility. If you read the local Tennessee papers, this would become apparent. The Tennessee Human Rights Commission, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is itself under threat. Legislation has been introduced to change its name to the “Tennessee Affirmative Action Commission.” That bill has yet to garner the support to pass, but a recent vote reduced the number of Commissioners from 15 to 9.

The Tennessee Commission has demonstrated that it is rightly named a Human Rights Commission – a name that should be celebrated and protected. As the state agency charged with preventing and eradicating discrimination, the Tennessee Commission’s mission (like many other commissions’), aligns with universal human rights principles: ensuring dignity, well-being and equality for all. Indeed, in 2011, the Tennessee Commission was highlighted in a report that the United States submitted to the United Nations, which emphasized how these agencies, “play a critical role in U.S. implementation of the human rights treaties to which the United States is a party.”

Just this Monday, I returned from Nashville, where I was able to see the Commission put its name into action – taking the pulse of human rights in Tennessee. Since January, the Commission has held four hearings across the state – in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. The hearings have brought together Commissioners, community groups, national organizations and mayors to discuss how the lives of Tennesseans are measuring up against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Tennessee Commission undertook these hearings in an effort to forge a path forward - a path that builds on a deep history of connecting the struggle for justice, democracy and equality as a struggle for human rights.

These hearings were an opportunity to take stock and think about creative solutions to the issues facing Tennesseans. Monday's hearing was the last, and the agenda was jam packed. Speakers discussed a range of issues, including criminalization of homelessness, discrimination against Muslim community members, felon disenfranchisement and the impact of deportations of non-citizens and their families. Mayor Karl Dean began the day, describing Nashville’s efforts to foster equity and inclusion in the face of shifting demographics and a growing immigrant population, noting that diversity and increased prosperity go hand in hand. Caroline Stover, a human rights clinic student, and I offered a national perspective on state and local initiatives to advance human rights across the country.

The dialogue, which lasted four hours, was rife with examples of human rights concerns, but more importantly, it was a platform to offer positive visions for change.

Suggestions included ways the Commission could more effectively address discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity through increased documentation and outreach, even though these are not protected under the current Tennessee Human Rights Act. Legislative changes, such as removing financial and procedural barriers that limit the ability of persons with criminal records from voting, were also addressed. (Tennessee has some draconian standards, and is currently the only state that requires full payment of child support payments before the vote can be restored). Almost all participants emphasized the need for government and community collaboration to foster sustainable change.

These hearings, which identify and document human rights concerns, are just one example of the myriad ways that state and local human rights agencies across the country are advancing human rights protections.

But Tennessee also illustrates the constraints facing state and local governments across the country, and human rights agencies, in particular. (We have documented these in a 2013 report to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee.)

Indeed, there are many challenges facing state and local government efforts to promote and protect human rights. The lack of staff, funding and political support makes advancing civil and human rights an uphill battle. But institutional change cannot occur without sustained focus on ways to further human rights, eradicate discrimination and promote equal opportunity. And this is the role of local agencies at their core. They address injustice and inequity through outreach, research and public education on pressing issues and policy recommendations.

Along with its partner agencies and other local agencies and officials, the Tennessee Commission represents part of an established infrastructure that can advance policies that foster dignity and opportunity.

As human rights advocates, we play an important role in supporting and strengthening local government efforts to identify and address human rights concerns. Further, we must press the federal government to live up to its obligations and provide state and local governments with the training and education, funding and support to do this work –steps numerous human rights experts and treaty bodies have called for. Without sustained support, including financial resources, the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, and others, will be unable to reach their full potential to advance human rights for all.

If you are interested in learning more about the Tennessee Commission’s hearings, all speakers’ presentations can be found here and the testimony will be compiled in a forthcoming report.

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In 2002, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives established a committee that held hearings around the state and issued a report assessing the state's adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now Tennessee is doing something similar through their Human Rights Commission. Are these the only two examples, or have other state legislatures or human rights commissions taken on this kind of project?

Posted by: Martha Davis | May 16, 2014 3:55:15 AM

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