Wednesday, September 30, 2020

On the Front Lines: Calling State and Local Leaders to Commit to Human Rights in the US

By Sarah Alshawish, Research Assistant and MIA/MPA Candidate at SIPA and LSE, and JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director of the Human Rights in the US Project, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute

Recent years have been marked by systematic US divestment in the United Nations (UN) and in the national institutions built to safeguard civil liberties, and civil and human rights. At the direction of Secretary Mike Pompeo, the US is unilaterally revisiting principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) with the aim of narrowly re-interpreting rights and creating a hierarchy that prioritizes property and religion, while rejecting a more robust framework that is grounded in international human rights treaties and agreements. This move reflects wider hostility towards global norms and institutions, and erases protections for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigrants, among others. At the same time, long-standing gaps in domestic human rights protections have been highlighted and exacerbated by disparities in COVID-19 infection rates, and renewed attention to the disproportionate use of force against Black communities. As these stark inequalities across diverse demographic communities illustrate, the need to strengthen human rights protections is urgent.

 Coronavirus makes clear that racial and socioeconomic disparities are life-threatening. In the United States, the pandemic has had a greater toll on Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous communities, that have infection rates almost two to three times higher than that of White populations. While disaggregated data is not readily available, records that identify race show 21% of COVID-19 deaths are among Black individuals, who comprise 13.4% of the US populationSusceptibility factors such as widespread discrimination in the criminal justice system and incarceration, unequal educational and employment opportunities, and inadequate and unaffordable health care impact physical and mental health and well-being, and lead to chronic stress that further increases risk for infection and death.

Since the spring, a strong wave of organizing and protests has swept the nation. What protesters seek is change. For justice, equality, and transformation. Police killings are 2.5 times higher for Black men than for White men, and people of color make up over 60% of the prison population. George Floyd’s death prompted communities to demand change not only within the US justice system, but in how Black populations are treated in all areas of life. Demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement rose throughout the country, with over 10,600 demonstrations between May and August. Black individuals have continued to be killed, and in late August, Jacob Blake was paralyzed by a police shooting. This week, protests are erupting in response to the grand jury’s decision regarding the killing of Breonna Taylor. This cycle of violence continues and full justice and accountability is elusive.  In some impacted jurisdictions, reforms are made, but what is required is systemic change - change that places dignity and humanity at the center - and change that reckons with how America’s past got us here.  

Instead, social fragmentation is fomented here at home through policies and rhetoric that evoke xenophobia, racism, sexism, and stoke fear and mistrust, repeatedly compromising human rights. Internationally, the US is largely disengaged. The current administration has forfeited its seat at the UN Human Rights Council and decreased its financial support from the United Nations. The Commission on Unalienable Rights Report has been criticized as “a global precedent for other nations looking to define human rights on their own terms.” These efforts are part and parcel of a project to minimize US accountability to human rights as defined under international law.

While the federal government has sought to undermine global norms by limiting human rights and civil liberties, there is more to the story. Across the country, state and local leaders in some jurisdictions have, independently and in unison, taken action that promote civil and human rights. We see a reckoning with the past in the removal of Confederate statues, and strides towards working with communities to address violence. Measures to protect healthcare coverage are essential to health and well-being and Mayors have urged the Senate to vote no on legislation that would rollback the Affordable Care Act. Some state and local leaders are also advancing women’s rightsLGBTQ rights, and promoting policies that protect immigrant rights.

This is a moment to illustrate that across the country, human rights are a priority. The UN Human Rights Council is slated to review the US human rights record on November 9th, as of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Through a statement developed by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute in collaboration with the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the US Human Rights Network, and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, state, local and tribal leaders have an opportunity to sign on and voice support for international human rights principles.

In joining the initiative, signatories declare their solidarity with communities across the US, and their commitment to protect the dignity and equality of all people. A commitment to human rights is a commitment to inclusive democracy, to ensuring that everyone has support to meet basic needs, and to fostering free expression, association, and assembly. As the nation’s human rights record is set for review in November, this statement provides an opportunity for government agencies and officials working at the state, county, city and local level, as well as Tribal and Indigenous leaders to voice a commitment to advancing human rights. Commitment to change, followed by action is necessary at this moment in order to preserve human rights for our nation’s future.

For more information about the initiative and other projects related to Human Rights in the US, please visit the Human Rights Institute’s web page and twitter page.

 The US government report submitted to the UN for the upcoming UPR review is now available on the OHCHR website:

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