Monday, January 25, 2016
For the past two years, human rights advocates across the United States were deeply engaged with reviews of the US human rights record in Geneva, Switzerland. Reviews by the CERD, the Human Rights Committee, the Committee Against Torture. and the U.S. UPR necessitated an immense amount of reporting, as well as trips to Geneva for those who were able to secure the resources and make the time. Yet, with the conclusion of the UPR last spring, it seemed that the windows of opportunity to raise human rights concerns with U.N. human rights experts, and U.S. officials were closing.
Yet, fortunately for human rights, that has not been the case. Instead, a flurry of activity has opened new opportunities to push for U.S. human rights accountability. And these opportunities are right here at home. The U.N. Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice concluded its US visit on December 11. The experts traveled to Oregon, Alabama, Washington, D.C. and Texas to participate in a range of meetings with civil society and government actors, and received a range of written submissions. The visit was a valuable opportunity for candid conversations on the status of women’s rights in the United States, which informed the Working Group’s preliminary findings. The visit also garnered media coverage in local Alabama media (here and here), and national outlets, Vox and Huffington Post.
This week, the human rights conversations continue. Indeed, the visit of the U.N. Working Group on People of African Descent is already underway. (The Working Group previously visited the U.S. in 2010).
The Group’s current ten-day tour of the United States, has an emphasis on the fulfillment of human rights at the city level. The trip kicked off with federal government meetings, but much time will be spent in the field. The Working Group will visit Baltimore, Maryland; Jackson, Mississippi; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City. In each location, these human rights experts will meet with mayors, attorneys general, and advocates of all stripes. This visit comes at key time, when issues of racial discrimination and inequality are front and nationally and locally, from the presidential debates (or, at least some of them) to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan .
The U.S. Human Rights Network Coordinating Center has played a key role in organizing the visit, working with local steering committees in each city, and collecting written submissions in advance of the visit. All of the written and oral interventions by civil society and government representatives will inform the Working Group’s preliminary findings, which should be releasedthis Friday, as well a more comprehensive report to the Human Rights Council later this year.
I welcome the visit to New York, my hometown, where the Working Group members will meet with elected officials, staff from the State Attorney General’s office, and importantly, spend half a day meeting with civil society to address a range of issues, including housing, education, and policing.
The Working Group’s meetings with local government officials offer an incredible opportunity to lift up human rights violations, discuss local policies that work, and propose context-specific recommendations for progress. How local officials respond is likely to vary across cities, and across office holders. But there is a 100% guarantee that the visit lays the groundwork for future advocacy, which local groups should seize upon and leverage in future advocacy.
Lest you need some taking points to inform how to frame human rights when talking to your local officials, or want to demonstrate that human rights are a valuable tool in local policymaking, you can look to this recent piece by Birmingham Mayor William Bell: Human Rights as a Vision for the Future of our Cities.
By continuing the human rights conversation in every available venue, we can build the foundation for change.