Tuesday, July 3, 2018
For decades those who consider the health of the nation have warned about the consequences of the widening gap between the rich and others. Along with the disappearance of the middle class has come the disappearance of empathy. Sense of community and willingness to help others has been replaced in many instances with an odd combination of beliefs. Contemporaneously, many believe that each individual is responsible for his or her own situation, as if the resources of the universe are available to all equally and somehow looming poverty is the result of individual failure to grasp the brass ring. Thrown into the mix is a smattering of distorted Christian biblical references used to justify whatever harsh policy or attitude promoted. Most recently, Attorney General Sessions quoted St. Paul in an effort to justify separating children from their parents at the border. Many pastors denounced Sessions' use of scripture and pointed out that the passage was taken out of context. It doesn't help that the cited passage was similarly used to support slavery which for generations entitled slave "owners" to practice family separation as a matter of right.
Then I saw Won't You Be My Neighbor? Fred Rogers foresaw the dangers of exposing children to violence and hatred. He spoke of consequences of exposure to violent television. Not only do our youth deal with violence on television and in movies, violence against students is a national fear with hyper-awareness of school shootings. How we extend the message of love to children today is our challenge. There is no Mr. Rogers to tell children that they are perfect just as they are.
Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions when we consider policy, religion and resistance. The right question is "What would Mr. Rogers Do?"
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
On June 5, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement condemning the U.S. policy of separating children from their families at the U.S. border. According to the UN spokesperson, "The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles. The child’s best interest should always come first, including over migration management objectives or other administrative concerns. It is therefore of great concern that in the US migration control appears to have been prioritised over the effective care and protection of migrant children." The UN statement also noted that the U.S. is the only country "in the world" that is not a party to the UN Children's Rights Convention, and urged the U.S. to ratify the Convention.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, quickly responded to the statement, arguing (1) that it was hypocritical for the UN to criticize the US when other members also engage in human rights abuses, and (2) that the US, as a sovereign nation, can act with impunity when it is protecting its borders. Both of these arguments are flawed, failing to take into account the totality of actions of the UN and ignoring the ways in which international law has been incorporated domestically. In short, the administration's position, articulated by Haley, takes exceptionalism to new heights and, in the process, sends the message that no one's human rights are safe here.
First, the idea that the UN has hypocritically singled out the US for human rights criticism is absurd. In the same press statement that critiqued the US child separation policy, the High Commissioner addressed human rights violations in Egypt and Ethiopia. The day before, the High Commissioner examined human rights abuses in China. A day later, Bangladesh was the topic. The many mechanisms of the UN ensure that all countries are exposed to constructive criticism (as well as, when warranted, praise) through the Universal Periodic Review process, and by review of treaty monitoring bodies or Special Procedures. The assertion that the U.S. can never be criticized on human rights grounds because of the amount of foreign aid and financial support that it provides sounds a bit like some other positions taken by this Administration, i.e., if you're rich enough, you don't have to play by the rules.
Second, Haley's assertion that U.S. sovereignty excuses human rights violations is also misplaced. The human rights at issue here are so basic and fundamental that they transcend particular documents -- and in fact, have even been accepted by several U.S. courts as customary international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a product of Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership, states clearly that the "[t]he family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." Further under Article 14 of the UDHR, "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." Certainly, an assertion of sovereignty doesn't excuse human rights abuses against children without some showing of absolute necessity and imminent harm. There is nothing like that here. Instead, the Administration has approached the impacts on children almost casually, as John Kelly noted that the separated children might eventually be placed in foster care "or whatever." In fact, the impacts on vulnerable children separated from their parents are long-lasting and profoundly negative. How far would the Administration go to protect U.S. sovereignty under the circumstances we have here? Would the Administration assert that it's acceptable to shoot the "trespassing" children of immigrants and asylees seeking entry at the border, in order to deter the migrating adults and to protect U.S. sovereignty?
Given Haley's defense of the Administration's policy of separating children from their families, we must all ask, has human rights lost all meaning to the U.S. government?
Wednesday, June 28, 2017
In February 2016, this blog highlighted an exciting development for Vermont dairy workers: Ben & Jerry’s made a formal agreement to cooperate with dairy workers, led by Migrant Justice, to join a worker driven social responsibility (WSR) program, known as Milk with Dignity. That commitment was made in 2015 – over two years ago. Yet, Milk in Dignity is not yet in place. Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s continue to negotiate the terms, but the process has been slow, and progress is lacking.
The stakes continue to be high for farmworkers in Vermont. Farm hours are long, and sometimes workers get no days off. Many workers are not even afforded eight consecutive hours off at a time. Pay is abysmal. Housing is substandard and injuries are common. Indeed, Migrant Justice was founded in response to the death of dairy worker, José Obeth Santiz Cruz. In 2009, Cruz died in a workplace accident when his clothes got stuck in a machine and strangled him. In response, dairy workers decided to take collective action to prevent similar travesties from occurring in the future, and improve overall farm conditions. One Migrant Justice member recently offered a compelling and personal snapshot of what dairy work can be like, and his motivation to advocate for change:
“My dad taught me how to milk cows. My first time in the barn, I thought I would pass out from the stench. It was scary working among the cows, getting knocked around by huge animals. Because there were no jobs available at the farm where my dad worked, I had to find work at a farm an hour away. At just 17, I was living and working by myself in a small farm on a back road in an unknown country, facing my first Vermont winter. Waking up at 3 a.m. to start my first shift, I’ve never felt so isolated. The farmer had me working 12 to 15 hours a day, with no day off. At the end of my first week, my body aching from over 80 hours of hard labor, I received my first paycheck and couldn’t believe what I saw: $350, or just over $4 per hour. At that time, I had no idea what the minimum wage was, but I knew that it wasn’t fair pay for the work I had done.”
Migrant Justice sees the Milk with Dignity Program as the key means to improve conditions so that dairy workers can live and work with dignity. Key components of the Program, which are calibrated to foster transformative change, are spelled out in a legally binding agreement, and include:
- workers’ central role in designing the program to best protects workers’ human rights, including through a detailed code of conduct for farms;
- continuous and independent monitoring to encourage compliance and ensure that breaches of the code are effectively investigated and addressed, coupled with farmworker education about their rights;
- accountability mechanisms to remedy violations of the code of conduct, with concrete market consequences where farms fail to make improvements;
- economic incentives for farmer participation: Ben & Jerry’s pays a premium to farms in good standing with the Code of Conduct, and this benefits the farm owners and farmworkers.
Over a dozen human rights organizations, including the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, the, FIDH, and Human Rights Watch, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights have endorsed the key elements of the Milk With Dignity Program, in a recent letter calling on Ben & Jerry’s to join the Milk with Dignity Program and describing how the Milk with Dignity Program implements human rights principles.
Last weekend, on the two year anniversary of Ben & Jerry’s initial agreement to cooperate, Migrant Justice and allies from across the country held a day of action to demand that Ben & Jerry’s make good on its commitment and put the Milk with Dignity Program into practice. More than 100 supporters made a 13 mile trek through Vermont, ending at Ben & Jerry’s Factory, where they delivered the human rights letter.
The March was a success. It drew broad support, received some excellent media coverage, and may be an important catalyst for progress implementing the Milk with Dignity Program. Unfortunately, celebration was cut short by the news that two of the marchers were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on their way back to the farm where they work. Sadly, this scenario is becoming somewhat routine for Migrant Justice. Just last month two other prominent Migrant Justice members were arrested by ICE and served 10 days in jail before being released.
Routine border patrol stops, and the arrests of Vermont dairy workers put in sharp relief the precarious position of many farmworkers, and the challenges to worker advocacy. Farmworkers lack basic legal protections, and were intentionally excluded from the rights to organize and collectively bargain at the federal and state levels, meaning they have few avenues to vindicate their rights. This has always impeded efforts to improve conditions on farms. In recent months, the obstacles that farmworkers face have increased, with a sharp rise in federal targeting of communities perceived to be immigrant, Latino, and non-English speaking, of which ICE arrests are just one example.
As a colleague and I described in an op-ed : in the current political climate, it is even more important that corporations leverage their power and resources to fulfill their human rights responsibilities. I hope that Ben & Jerry’s is ready to step up - it would create a great model and an incentive for further positive corporate action.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
Elie Wiesel was our conscience and our memory of the Holocaust. He was voice for millions of the murdered because of the hatred and madness of one leader and his supporters. But also the Jewish citizens died due to the overwhelming silence of others. It is both easy and difficult to understand the fear of speaking out when neighbors are disappearing. Consequences of disagreeing with Hitler, as with other dictators, were and are severe and usually fatal. But that begs the question on how dictators ascend to national control in the first instance.
Anyone who read Night was no doubt haunted by the inhumanity. But one of the lessons Mr. Wiesel taught us was not to wait in confronting hateful conditions as they are developing. Politics rooted in hate can be powerful and, if not curbed, lead to the sort of unimaginable suffering that Mr. Wiesel endured. Not confronting hatred when it first appears permits inhumanity to grow. Failure to confront hatred opens the door for demagogues.