Thursday, July 23, 2015

Widening the Circle, Changing the Conversation

By JoAnn Kamuf Ward 


The lofty goal of human rights advocates is to re-orient how government operates.  To place freedom from discrimination and an adequate standard of living at the center of decision-making, and to prioritize the needs of the most marginalized communities.  This paradigm shift requires changing prevalent attitudes about the role of government and, critically, changing the conversation among government actors.

 Often this seems like an unwinnable battle.  You need look no farther than the coverage of the Affordable Care Act to understand that Americans are deeply polarized about the government’s obligations to meet basic needs and provide essential services, like healthcare.  This polarization is certainly disheartening, but it should by no means discourage human rights advocacy and organizing.

 Why not?  Because everyday, in new and perhaps unexpected ways, human rights are permeating the dominant narrative.  Human rights are implicit in Supreme Court decisions and presidential speeches rife with references to the foundational principles of dignity and equality. Under the Obama Administration, explicit references to human rights at the federal level are increasing too.  President Obama has affirmed the “basic human right to be free from violence and abuse” and HUD has recognized housing as a human right.  At the local level, there is a burgeoning national Cities for CEDAW movement, with mayoral support in a number of cities, including Los Angeles

 Philadelphia now joins the ranks of cities where policymakers are looking to human rights when formulating policy.  In June, a member of the Philadelphia City Council affirmed that human rights, and the right to water specifically, are a concern for local government.  This recognition came with an announcement that the City Council approved legislation to improve affordable water access for members of Philadelphia’s low-income communities.  In her announcement, Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez quoted UN Special Rapporteurs, stating “‘[i]t is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.’”  (The U.N. Special Rapporteurs focused on housing and water and sanitation made this pronouncement as a result of their joint 2014 visit to Detroit, where mass water shut offs have caused severe harm to families who cannot afford to pay their bills, as reported previously on this blog).   

 According to Quinones-Sanchez, the Bill would require income-based payment plans, and strengthen protections for individuals who have been unable to pay their water bills due to financial hardship, as well as providing forgiveness for overdue bills once customers enroll in the newly created assistance program.  These protections aim to prevent foreclosures based on a failure to pay their water bills.   In her announcement the Councilwoman noted that by passing this legislation, “Philadelphia will join the forefront in best practices related to water access.”  

  graphic by Paul KamufKeyhole_v3

A race to the top in the arena of water access would have positive implications for communities around the country. And, Philadelphia can serve as an example that generates conversations elsewhere.

Changes in narrative alone will not achieve the promise of human rights.  But, when that change is tethered to new approaches to policy that fulfill the right to an adequate standard of living and prioritize vulnerable communities, well, then we are getting somewhere. 

 We need more cities to pick up the banner of human rights and use human rights principles to re-imagine how government can best meet the needs of constituents.

Of course, if not for the work of advocates in Detroit who organized the visit of the Special Rapporteurs, the Philadelphia Bill may not have been linked with international human rights.  But, as a result of their advocacy, more local actors are making these connections.  


[Editors' Note:  At the time of publication, the legislation was awaiting Mayor Nutter’s signature]

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