Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Budgeting and Participation: A Recipe for Change?


By JoAnn Kamuf Ward  

Follow the Money.

 It’s no secret that an important way to assess someone's priorities is to look at how they allocate their resources.  This is true for individuals, but it applies to governments too.

 Many lawyers are not numbers people, but we ought to be.  By watching how governments spend specific dollars, we can more effectively identify the extent to which stated commitments to human rights, are, in fact, priorities.  Being well-versed in financing can also help advocates influence how money is being spent.

 Of course, budget processes are not often transparent.  But that is changing, as the Transparency and Accountability Initiative has detailed.  A human rights framework requires transparency, because it is critical for accountability.  Transparency alone, however, does not make a budget process human rights-compliant.  Human rights also call for governments, both national and local to foster meaningful participation of communities in decision-making:

The right to participate is not spelled out in any one treaty or covenant, but is drawn from a number of international agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

 In 2013, then U.N. Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdelena Sepulveda, issued a report detailing the contours of participation, focused on participation of individuals living in extreme poverty.  She emphasizes that “To be in line with human rights obligations, participation should challenge existing power relations that restrict people’s agency and enable free, informed and meaningful input, with real influence over the final decision or outcome.”  Her report also offers concrete strategies for ensuring basic human rights principles, such as dignity, non-discrimination, access, and empowerment.  For one, placing a priority on creating circumstances in which marginalized or typically vulnerable populations can participate.  Additionally, fostering access to information so that all community members can make informed choices, regardless of literacy, language or other factors.

Bringing a human rights framework to budgeting has the potential to be transformative.  There are efforts underway to develop human rights based budgeting in the U.S. and abroad.  In 2011, Mexico City enacted a law putting human rights budgeting in place.  Within the U.S., the most notable action has been at the state level.  In Vermont, the Legislature has declared that “the state budget should be designed to address the needs of the people of Vermont in a way that advances human dignity and equity” and that spending and revenue should promote economic well-being and “recognize every person’s need for health, housing, dignified work, education, food, social security, and a healthy environment.” 

While not based in human rights principles, there is also a growing city level effort in the United States to infuse participation into spending through participatory budgeting (“PB”).  Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Vallejo, CA, are all experimenting with versions of PB.  (PB originated in Puerto Allegre, Brazil in the 1980’s and has been used in localities around the world – over 1,500 localities – according to the Participatory Budgeting Project).  NESRI has discussed subnational examples, including from Canada and the UK, in a short briefing paper.

 In my own hometown, New York City, participatory budgeting began in 2011.  The way it works is that in each district that has PB, residents choose collectively how to spend $1 million of their City Council Member’s discretionary capital funds.  Neighborhood assemblies develop project ideas and spearhead project proposals that are ultimately presented to the district members.  Any resident of the district can participate, as long as they are 16 or older and have proof of residency in the district – moving closer to “one person, one vote” than typical elections. 

 Since 2011, the number of City Council Members who participate has tripled (up to 24 in 2015).  And, the City Council is trumpeting this effort.

 Of course, this type of budget participation only gets at a small slice of the pie, and the options and outcomes are not necessarily based on human rights principles.  But, participatory budgeting is clearly a step toward more inclusive, transparent and accountable civic participation.  It is also a signal that direct democracy is alive and well. 



March 31, 2015 in Economics, JoAnn Kamuf Ward | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Keep Marching: From Civil Rights to Civil and Human Rights

Prof. Risa Kaufman's and Prof. JoAnn Kamuf Ward 's students traveled to Alabama last week to participate in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  The students provide us with their first hand account.

By: Glory Nwaugbala, Dan Pedraza, Ben Setel, and Audrey Son, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic

As members of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, we have spent this academic year working to advance state and local implementation of human rights within the United States. We recently experienced the importance of this work firsthand over the course of a weekend in Alabama.

Many of the United States’ human rights obligations fall within the jurisdiction of state and local governments.  Through the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, we have been working to develop and support state and local implementation of these obligations. As part of that work, we’ve been privileged to work with the Birmingham mayor’s office. We have been particularly excited to work with Birmingham, not only because of that city’s historical importance in the civil rights movement, but also because Birmingham Mayor William Bell has emerged as a champion for human rights, including through his participation on the United States’ official delegation to the CERD last summer.

On Friday, March 6th, 2015, Mayor Bell hosted a dialogue on local human rights concerns in advance of the upcoming review of the United States at the Universal Periodic Review, and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (when, as part of the Voting Rights Movement, unarmed demonstrators attempting to peacefully march from Selma to Montgomery were attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge).  

For this event, we helped plan a day of panels on a wide range of issues, including education, immigration, homelessness, and marriage equality. The panelists included state legislators, law enforcement officers, local advocates, community members, and other actors. A representative from the U.S. State Department attended, as well, and noted in his closing comments that “human rights are universal but are experienced locally.” He went on to say that this event was precisely the sort of local engagement that the State Department hoped to cultivate throughout the country. It was encouraging to hear such strong words of support for state and local engagement with human rights from a federal government representative.

 Although the individual panelists may not have shared the same views or experiences, some common ground emerged.  Where each had seen a gap in justice, each has worked to fill it.  Despite the efforts of these individuals and their respective organizations, however, it was clear that more must be done to address critical social justice concerns in Birmingham. The dialogue among the panelists highlighted one of the major themes of the weekend: the promise of human rights in addressing local issues. As one panelist noted, Birmingham must transition from “the cradle of civil rights to the house of human rights.”

Human rights provide a valuable supplement to the traditional civil rights framework. The language of human rights makes clear the intersection and deep connection between economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. A human rights frame can better capture many contemporary issues, and pave the way for holistic solutions. It can empower individuals by explicitly acknowledging them as rights-holders. And such acknowledgement highlights that government actors have a responsibility to protect, respect and fulfill rights. 

 The following day, March 7th, 2015, marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery that sparked the passage of the Voting Rights Act. We travelled from Birmingham to Selma to hear President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and others speak on the legacy of the march. As Congressman Lewis embraced our nation’s first African-American president, sharing a stage in this historic place, we were reminded that although the struggle for rights in the United States has been long and difficult, it is one that has made tremendous strides forward. President Obama's speech served as both a reflection on progress made and as a call to further action. Tens of thousands of people of all ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations gathered in Selma that day to rally around one idea: keep marching. As President Obama reminded us: “the most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’”

Throughout the weekend, we were struck by the way in which human rights themes permeated the discourse from the local level all the way to the President’s speech. While not everyone mentioned “human rights” explicitly, the principles were evident in their words and in their work. Human rights have a role to play in cities, in states, and at the national level, and they provide a roadmap for the achievement of the universal rights of all people.

Hearing those themes reflected in Alabama was particularly powerful. The story of civil rights in Alabama is as inspiring as it is unfinished. Knowing that tremendous progress has been made in the fight for civil rights—both in Alabama and across the United States—we have good reason to be optimistic about the promise of human rights. In order to realize this promise, however, we must keep marching.

March 16, 2015 in JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Race, Risa Kaufman, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Where Would You Draw the (District) Line?

by JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Human Rights Institute, Columbia Law School

The U.S. prides itself on free and fair elections.  Indeed, the Constitution and federal law guarantee equality in voting: the “one person, one vote” standard was enunciated by the Supreme Court in the 1960s as a means to address vastly skewed voting power resulting from districts with unequal populations.

This simple phrase – “one person, one vote” – belies the complex nature of elections in the United States.  In order to foster the idea that each person’s vote counts in our at large system, federal elections districts drawn “as mathematically equal as possible,” while state and local districts are supposed to be drawn through an “honest and good faith effort” to ensure equal populations. (The ACLU has explained these standards and the underlying case law here).  But, in the majority of states, districting falls to legislators (in others, districting commissions have authority to draw districts).  That means in most jurisdictions, those who are in charge of districting are individuals with a vested interest in maintaining power.  This system is one rife with potential for abuse. 

 Indeed, it has led to rampant gerrymandering.  In general, gerrymandering is the act of altering political boundaries with the intent to impact election outcomes.  Perhaps the most well-known form of gerrymandering is racial.  Indeed, the Voting Rights Act was developed to prevent the dilution of minority votes – yet its protections are unfortunately being chipped away.  Another variation is partisan gerrymandering, i.e., the “practice of dividing a geographical area into electoral districts, often of highly irregular shape, to give one political party an unfair advantage by diluting the opposition’s voting strength.”  This slicing and dicing of districts to protect a particular party or favor a particular candidate is another way that districting curtails truly free and fair elections.

 While much seems at stake, the Supreme Court has been reticent to step in to curtail these practices.  Indeed, last year’s decision in Shelby v. Holder struck down some protections of the Voting Rights Act that address racially discriminatory gerrymandering.  In the arena of partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court more or less thrown up its hands over a decade ago.  In 2004, a plurality decision by Justice Scalia opined that there is “no judicially discernible and manageable standards” to adjudicate claims of partisan gerrymandering.  This means that presently there is little recourse for those whose votes, and voices, are marginalized by partisan line drawing. 

 So, what can be done?  Advocates are taking these concerns to the international human rights community to put pressure on the United States to ensure elections are truly representative.  The relevant human rights protections are strongly worded.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to “take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and guarantees a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, that “[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; [as] expressed in periodic and genuine elections.”  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights echoes these protections and the Race Convention further guarantees the right to vote.

 In its recent review of the United States’ human rights record, the CERD Committee expressed concern about the “obstacles faced by individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples to effectively exercise their right to vote, due inter alia to restrictive voter identification laws, district gerrymandering, and state-level felon disenfranchisement laws.”  The Committee called for federal legislation to address discriminatory impact of voting regulations, voting rights for felons and DC residents and efforts to ensure indigenous peoples can effectively exercise the vote. 

 There are ongoing legislative efforts to address some of these concerns, including passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.  Placing districting power in the hands of independent bodies rather than legislators is another proposal reform.  Another recommendation to address partisan gerrymandering is removing discretion altogether and utilizing computer models to generate district maps.

 Yet, it is unclear whether current legislative reforms or judicial intervention can truly foster compliance with human rights norms within our current winner take all election system (also known as “first past the post”).  More drastic steps may be necessary to ensure the will of the people is the basis of the government and representatives are freely chosen.

 Alternatives to “winner take all” models do exist.  They are employed in countries around the world, as well as in some U.S. jurisdictions.  One is Ranked Choice Voting, or Alternative Voting (AV), which is used in Cambridge, MA, San Francisco, CA and Australia.  Another is Mixed Member Proportional Representation, the means for choosing representatives in Germany, New Zealand and others.   These videos offer an introduction to Alternative Voting and Proportional Representation

 What solutions would you propose?


January 27, 2015 in Advocacy, CERD, Global Human Rights, JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Race, Shadow Reports, Voting | Permalink | Comments (0)