Thursday, September 10, 2015

5 Reasons U.S. Human Rights Advocates Should Pay Attention to the New Sustainable Development Goals

By Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute; Lecturer-in-law, Columbia Law School

At the end of this month, an extraordinary group of world leaders will gather at the U.N. in New York to adopt a new agenda intended to eliminate global poverty by 2030. Countries have been negotiating the terms of these anti-poverty goals for several years. I’ve previously noted the significance of the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) explicit incorporation of human rights, and, with David Udell of the National Center for Access to Justice, remarked on specific implications of Goal 16, which calls on the United States and all countries to ensure access to justice as a means of accomplishing the larger goal of ending poverty.

The SDGs are not perfect. Nevertheless, with their remarkably broad scope and emphasis on universality and human rights, the SDGs offer a new tool and significant opportunities for U.S. social justice advocates. Here, I suggest five reasons why U.S. human rights advocates should pay attention to the SDGs.

 1. Data

The SDGs potentially will generate a significant amount of data related to U.S. human rights concerns. The SDGs are comprised of 17 goals and 169 targets on a remarkable array of social, economic, and environmental issues. By March 2016, the U.N. Statistical Commission will release a set of global indicators to guide the data collection that will help countries achieve the goals and targets.  Each country, including the United States, will be expected to draw on those global indicators to form its own national-level indicators.

Through these global and national-level indicators, the U.S. will track its progress on human rights concerns including gender equality, maternal health care, access to justice, housing, hunger, education, clean water and sanitation, climate change, employment, and inequality. Thus, the SDGs will generate important statistical information which potentially will influence government programs, research, and funding, and which U.S. advocates can incorporate into their advocacy with government officials, the media, communities, and interested stakeholders.

 2. Reporting Opportunities

 The SDGs offer new opportunities for advocates to report on U.S. progress (or lack of progress) in improving conditions on a range of human rights issues. The SDGs call on each country to track how it is implementing the goals and targets, and to engage with civil society to conduct regular national-level reviews. Though the U.S. has not yet developed the precise mechanism it will use to monitor its implementation of the SDGs, it is expected to do so once the global reporting system is established. Because the SDGs track human rights issues, advocates will be able to use the process to raise awareness around human rights concerns within the United States, particularly on issues concerning economic, social, and cultural rights (such as access to healthcare, education, and housing). In addition, the goals, targets, and indicators will offer important benchmarks for monitoring and reporting on U.S. human rights treaty compliance and human rights progress during the Universal Periodic Review process, as well as offer U.N. special procedures important information with which to assess U.S. human rights progress and concerns.

 3. Government Engagement

 The SDGs offer significant opportunities for U.S. human rights advocates to engage with the federal government on domestic human rights concerns. The SDGs are intended to be highly participatory, and indeed in international negotiations over the terms of the SDGs, the United States championed Goal 16’s inclusion of participation and transparency. Moreover, the U.S. Chief Negotiator for the Post-2015 Process recently noted that the SDGs and their emphasis on “leave no one behind” largely reflect U.S. domestic policy priorities. Thus, advocates can and should engage in dialogue with the U.S. government as it develops the national-level indicators that the United States will use to measure its progress with the SDGs, as well as what process it will use to review progress at the national level.

 Through these conversations, advocates can give voice to areas of human rights concern in the United States, as well as ensure that civil society plays a key function in reviewing progress. As the United States has sought to do with the Universal Periodic Review, it can use the SDGs as an opportunity to model transparency and inclusivity and engage with civil society to determine relevant national level indicators, thus sparking important conversations around pressing human rights concerns within the United States.

 4. Cross-Global Learning

 By establishing universal goals and a global reporting mechanism, the SDGs offer opportunities for U.S. advocates to learn from advocates and reformers around the world working to ensure robust implementation of the SDGs in other countries. Global-level indicators will generate data that will promote cross-global comparison, as well, allowing U.S. advocates to gauge U.S. progress on economic, social, and environmental concerns in light of global trends. Likewise, the SDGs may facilitate new cross-border alliances between stakeholder communities around the world as advocates work to monitor and urge progress on SDG implementation internationally.

5. Funding

The SDGs are not likely to result in the flow of international development funds to the United States.  Nevertheless, the SDGs may influence the philanthropic community within the United States.  By establishing priorities, benchmarks, and data, the SDGs may promote evidenced-based giving, and help to set priorities for grant makers on a host of human rights concerns falling within the scope of the SDGs.

Of course, with opportunities come challenges. The SDGs are no exception; there are many obstacles to ensuring that the SDGs have a positive impact on human rights within the United States. These include the challenge of ensuring that the United States adopts meaningful national-level indicators and a robust process for monitoring its domestic implementation. Other difficulties include a general lack of public education and awareness around the SDGs and human rights more generally.  

Nevertheless, global adoption of cross-cutting and interconnected goals that explicitly embrace the full scope of human rights offers significant opportunities for advocacy on domestic human rights concerns. U.S. advocates should embrace the SDGs as a new tool to raise awareness, track progress, and promote the full realization of human rights at home.

September 10, 2015 in Penny Venetis, Poor, Risa Kaufman | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Where There is a Will, There is a Way

Penny Venetis calls upon the U.S. to implement all Human Rights Treaties.  Is the U.S.  morally flawed in focusing its efforts on international trafficking while ignoring other vulnerable populations? 

 Where There is a Will, There is a Way:  The U.S. Should Implement All Human Rights Treaties That it Has Ratified With the Same Vigor That It Has Shown in Attempting to Eradicate Human Trafficking.

by Penny Venetis

The United States continues to come under criticism by the international community for failing to implement human rights treaties that it has already ratified, and for failing to ratify other major human rights treaties.   This was demonstrated most recently in 2013, when Congress rejected the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by 128 countries.   Even though the treaty was modeled on our very own forward-thinking Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and supported by Republican stalwarts like former Senator Bob Dole, the treaty died in the Senate in a 61 to 38 vote.

The United States has ratified only four of seven foundational international human rights treaties: the Genocide Convention in 1988; the ICCPR in 1992; CERD in 1994; and the Convention Against Torture also in 1994.  Remarkably, it took the U.S. nearly 40 years to ratify the uncontroversial Genocide Convention.  But, these treaties remain unenforceable domestically because Congress has saddled them with RUDs, or “reservations, understandings and declarations.” The most extreme type of RUD is the “non-self executing” RUD, which stays treaty enforcement indefinitely, unless Congress passes enabling legislation to enforce the treaty.  As such, what should be powerful declarations of fundamental rights are empty ceremonial pronouncements.

Adding insult to injury, Congress’s implementing legislation to enforce two of these four treaties -- Genocide Convention and Torture Convention -- radically watered them down; so much so, that our country, sadly, is still engaged in an active debate over whether our government should engage in torture.

The only notable exception to the U.S.’s poor human rights treaty ratification and implementation record is the “Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children,” part of the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.  This is the only human rights treaty ratified by the U.S. that has been  implemented with rigor.

  The United States ratified the “Palermo Protocol” in 2000, and immediately set to work on enforcing it.  Congress passed domestic implementing legislation in the form of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA).  The TVPA was re-authorized and strengthened four times since then-in 2003, 2006, 2008, and most recently in 2013.   Additionally, every state has enacted and implemented both criminal and civil anti-trafficking laws that mirror the Palermo Protocol and TVPA.   Legislatures have also made money available to train law enforcement in anti-trafficking techniques, and for anti-trafficking public awareness campaigns.

This is not to say that all aspects of federal and state anti-trafficking laws are perfect.  The money allocated for training barely scratches the surface.  Also, sex trafficking victims who are prostituted (including children) are processed through the criminal justice system and prosecuted, rather than being given needed services.  Although they may move to expunge their criminal records, they still suffer great harm by being treated as criminals rather than victims.

But, it is laudable that the U.S. has finally taken its international responsibilities seriously.  The human rights community should use the U.S.’s embrace of the Palermo Protocol as a advocacy tool.  We should argue that Congress and all 50 states have shown that they are fully capable of enforcing a human rights treaties domestically, and taking action to try to end horrendous abuses.  If government, at all levels, can coalesce around ending modern day slavery, then it can certainly do the same to eradicate torture, racism and other abuses that the U.S. has promised the world it would end. 

Human rights advocates can de-mystify human rights treaties and urge their enforcement by pointing to the TVPA and comparable state laws.  Anti-trafficking laws show that where there is a will, there is a way to enforce our human rights obligations.  Those laws also show that international treaties should not be treated with suspicion as “foreign” or “other.”   Rather, they should and can be embraced and enforced as the “supreme law of the land,” as envisioned by the Constitution.



April 16, 2014 in Penny Venetis | Permalink | Comments (0)