Tuesday, January 25, 2022
On Monday January 31, 2022, the Center for Reproductive Rights' President and CEO Nancy Northrup is hosting a webinar to provide first-hand information on the cases and context for attacks on reproductive rights in the US, and a global human rights dialogue on how we can work across borders to protect and advance reproductive rights.
The Center’s Enid Muthoni Ngida will moderate a panel featuring:
- UN Special Rapporteur on Health, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng
- Chancellor’s Professor, UC Irvine and elected member The American Law Institute, Michele Bratcher Goodwin
- CEO Fòs Feminista, Gisel Carino
RSVP here: https://bit.ly/3qJyWIU
Monday, August 27, 2018
Martha Davis and Risa Kaufman have published an Issue Brief with the American Constitution Society. The Issue Brief is entitled "Truth is Truth: U.S. Abortion Law in the Global Context". The Society's website reads:
"With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court, the fate of reproductive rights is once again at the center of national debate. Abortion opponents have been preparing for a time they might be able to revisit many of the key Supreme Court decisions upholding this fundamental right. To support their efforts, they often point to a report that finds that the United States is more permissive than the majority of other countries with regard to abortion access. In a new ACS Issue Brief, Martha F. Davis, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Experiential Education at Northeastern University School of Law, and Risa E. Kaufman, Director of U.S. Human Rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School, explain how the report and its use of a rudimentary global tally is misleading, inaccurate, and ignores both important protections for women’s health provided by many other countries and the international trend towards liberalization, particularly in Europe. In so doing, Davis and Kaufman provide a more complete understanding of comparative abortion law that will better equip policymakers, judges, and the public when reproductive rights are under attack."
The brief may be read here.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Risa Kaufman & JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
State and local officials can be a bulwark against the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine human rights. Their potential was on full display during Trump’s first weeks in office.
With immigrants as his prime target, President Trump signed a sweeping executive order temporarily suspending refugee admissions, indefinitely banning refugee admissions from Syria, and imposing severe restrictions for 90-days on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Earlier, he issued an order to begin construction on a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and ramp up immigration enforcement within the United States. For those “sanctuary jurisdictions” that resist this crack down on their residents by limiting cooperation with federal authorities on immigration enforcement, Trump ordered withholding of federal funding, thus carrying out a promise made on the campaign trail.
In the midst of these assaults on human rights, we’ve seen massive nation-wide organizing and public protests, remarkable collaboration to develop swift legal challenges, and courageous resistance and dissent from within the federal government. State and local officials from many jurisdictions are stepping in and stepping up, as well, vowing to protect local communities.
State and local efforts to protect human rights, particularly in the context of immigration, are not new. In recent years, sanctuary jurisdictions have emerged as a response to the over-enforcement of draconian federal immigration restrictions which separate families and disrupt lives and livelihoods. New York, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. are among the 39 cities that have declared that they will not share information with federal authorities on immigration status or turn their citizens over to federal immigration authorities for minor infractions. Four states (California, Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island) and hundreds of counties make up the ranks, as well. Jurisdictions take wide ranging and differing approaches to their sanctuary policies. What they share, however, is a principled commitment to keeping immigrant communities safe and to ensuring equal treatment of individuals.
In this new era, the stakes are increasingly high. Indeed, in the wake of the executive order threatening loss of funding, some sanctuary jurisdictions are rethinking their approach. Miami-Dade’s mayor ordered county jails to comply with federal immigration detention requests, citing the over 300 million dollars of federal funding at stake.
But others are standing firm. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio vowed to prioritize city policies that foster positive ties between law enforcement and immigrant communities. And he suggested that the City would sue the federal government if it withholds funding pursuant to the new executive order. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said that Boston would not be intimidated by threatened federal cuts. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a guidance for local authorities on how to limit participation in immigration enforcement, and suggested model sanctuary provisions. California’s Governor Jerry Brown, too, has spoken out strongly about his state’s commitment to “defend everybody – every man, woman and child – who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state."
Other examples of state and local resistance to the Trump agenda have emerged. In response to the January 27th executive order halting refugee admissions and imposing a 90-day ban on entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, sixteen state Attorney’s General issued a joint statement condemning the order as "unconstitutional, un-American and unlawful," and vowing to challenge the order in court. As of this writing, the Governor and Attorney General of Washington announced plans to file broad-based litigation seeking to invalidate the order, and the Attorney General of Massachusetts announced the intention to join in litigation brought by the ACLU.
The emergence of vocal state and local leaders, speaking out for foundational human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, regardless of citizenship status, illustrates the critical role that state and local governments play in safeguarding human rights, particularly where the federal government fails to do so. Notably, a number of sanctuary jurisdictions have also made express commitments to promote and protect human rights. Boston and Seattle are among the eleven self-proclaimed “Human Rights Cities” in the United States – a number that continues to grow. Los Angeles and San Francisco have enacted ordinances based explicitly on international human rights treaties. Chicago has likewise committed to address domestic violence and children’s rights as human rights issues. Add to these examples innovative efforts by mayors, legislatures, and state and local agencies across the United States to incorporate human rights into local law and policy.
As these actions by mayors, governors, and Attorneys Generals illustrate, human rights do, indeed, begin in small places, close to home. And state and local officials will have an increasingly vital role to play in ensuring that the United States protects and respects human rights in the age of Trump.
Sunday, January 8, 2017
by Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
Civil and human rights organizations have denounced President-elect Trump’s nomination of Senator Sessions, noting that, throughout his career, Sessions has expressed views and taken actions that are anathema to human rights, including the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. He voted against the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, has taken a hard line against immigration reform, questioned the necessity of the Voting Rights Act, supported a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, opposed a bill to grant workplace discrimination protections to LGBT people, and voted against a measure reaffirming the prohibition against torture. He has disturbing ties to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups and a close relationship with Breitbart News. The Senate rejected his nomination for a federal judgeship in 1986, based in part on testimony that he made racist statements and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.”
Monday, June 20, 2016
Well before the June 12th attack in Orlando, human rights advocates labeled gun violence in the United States a human rights crisis, underscoring the urgent need for government action.
The Orlando mass shooting, which targeted the LGBTQ community, was the worst in U.S. history. Mass shootings have become devastatingly common, while communities throughout the United States suffer from gun violence on a daily basis. Every day, an average of 89 people in the United States die from gun related violence. That’s 32,000 people a year.
The impact on communities of color and on women is particularly acute. African-Americans are more than twice as likely to die from gun violence than whites. And, in instances of domestic violence, the presence of a firearm in a home increases the risk of homicide by 500%. Amnesty International USA’s recent human rights report on gun violence in Chicago and Illinois, and the Violence Policy Center’s report on intimate partner homicide starkly illustrate the crisis.
As Congress debates whether and how to curb easy access to deadly assault rifles and other firearms, human rights officials express dismay at the most recent tragedy, and stress the critical need for U.S. lawmakers to respond.
Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement urging the United States to “live up to its obligations to protect its citizens” from gun violence. The statement follows the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recent report to the UN Human Rights Council on human rights and the regulation of firearms. The report delineates ways in which gun violence threatens a sweeping range of rights, and emphasizes governments’ due diligence obligations to protect.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights likewise issued a statement condemning the Orlando shootings and urging reforms. In a previous thematic report, the IACHR examined government’s obligations to protect, including through the regulation of firearms.
Human rights experts have repeatedly sounded the alarm.
In visits to the United States earlier this year, two groups of UN experts stated concern over U.S. gun violence, and the government’s failure to curb it. The Working Group of experts on People of African Descent noted concern with the lack of gun control and “stand your ground” laws and the impact on African American communities in the United States. The Working Group on discrimination against women noted the “persistent fatal consequences for women” of the lack of gun control in the United States, in particular in cases of domestic violence.
The UN Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination both dedicated portions of their most recent reports on U.S. human rights compliance to the issue of gun violence. They noted concern with the high number of gun-related deaths and injuries in the United States, and the disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Both committees view the government’s failure to curb gun violence as a violation of the right to life and the right to non-discrimination. And they urged the U.S. to take action to reduce gun violence, including through the expansion of background checks and other enhanced gun violence prevention measures.
Has outrage over gun violence in the U.S. finally reached a tipping point? Framing the epidemic as a human rights crisis demands U.S. lawmakers to respond, adding urgency to a drumbeat of calls for meaningful reform.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
This is turning out to be quite a year for U.S. engagement with UN human rights experts. Last month, at a meeting with U.S. human rights advocates, the State Department announced that three UN special procedures will make official visits to the United States between now and the end of the calendar year. Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, plans to visit the United States from July 11-25, 2016. The UN Working Group on arbitrary detentions and the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons will each visit the U.S. The trafficking expert's visit is set for December 5-16, 2016, while the Working Group dates are TBD. Special procedures (which include Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups) are independent human rights experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor human rights situations in specific countries or related to a thematic issue throughout the world.
The newly announced visits come on the heels of recent visits to the United States by the UN Working Group on discrimination against women (November 30-December 11, 2015) and the UN Working Group on people of African Descent (January 19-29, 2016). Each of those visits concluded with a strong press statement summarizing the group’s findings during the course of the visit. The Working Groups will present their formal reports and recommendations later this year.
These UN human rights experts are among the 41 special procedure thematic mandates covering a diverse range of issues, including torture, mercenaries, and the rights of human rights defenders, as well as education, migrants, and food. Special procedures base their evaluations on standards drawn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights norms. They are not limited in their review by whether a country has ratified a particular treaty, a fact that is especially relevant with respect to the United States.
The official country visit is a key working method of the special procedures. The experts may make such visits only upon receiving a formal invitation from the country’s government. One hundred and fifteen UN member countries, not including the United States, have issued a standing invitation to the special procedures. For several years, U.S. human rights advocates have urged the United States to invite the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, to examine solitary confinement practices in U.S. prisons, and to meet with people imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. has not yet extended an invitation allowing the requested access.
But special procedures aren’t limited to making official country visits. They also can receive and act on allegations of human rights recommendations from impacted individuals and communities, as well as conduct thematic studies and develop reports on crosscutting and systemic human rights concerns. And they can work more informally, including by conducting unofficial visits, participating in hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and issuing press statements. Just last week, three UN special procedures -- the Special Rapporteurs on housing, extreme poverty, and water and sanitation -- issued a joint press release on the human rights impacts of the contaminated water supply in Flint, Michigan, in advance of President Obama’s visit to Flint.
How can U.S. advocates make the most of the upcoming visits and other opportunities for engagement with these UN human rights experts? In 2015, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institutedeveloped a guide for effective advocacy with the UN special procedures, geared towards U.S. advocates. And, next month, the Institute is hosting a full day symposium (and free CLE) on the topic. (Registersoon, as space in limited.)
The US Human Rights Network (USHRN) will share information on the recently announced visits as such information becomes available. Join the USHRN’s International Mechanisms listserv to stay posted. And, if your organization is interested coordinating aspects of the visit, contact USHRN’s coordinating center.
Monday, April 18, 2016
by Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and lecturer-in-law Columbia Law School
How can the United States truly universalize the new global anti-poverty agenda, and ensure its impact at home? With its pledge to “leave no one behind” and its grounding in human rights, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agendaoffers important opportunities for U.S. human rights advocates to deepen their work and measure progress on profound economic, social, and environmental challenges within the United States. The Agenda provides the United States government, too, with a significant opportunity to address issues of equality and poverty in the U.S., through the lens of human rights. This week, a group of human rights NGOs urged five principles to guide the U.S. government’s plan for domestic implementation, follow up, and review of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
- Human Rights Integration
In a significant improvement over the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are grounded in human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties. Human rights should thus form a basis for the U.S. government’s understanding of its SDG commitments and guide its overall implementation, follow up, and review of the Goals. In doing so, the United States can draw on resources developed by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Furthermore, in developing national level indicators for measuring progress on the SDGs, the United States should take into consideration the recent recommendations it has received from the human rights treaty bodies, the UN special procedures, the Universal Periodic Review, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. By using these human rights recommendations as a basis for creating national indicators, the United States can measure its progress towards addressing recognized domestic human rights concerns.
- Participation and Transparency
The 2030 Agenda makes clear that implementation of the SDGs should be based on the principles of participation, inclusion, and transparency. Civil society should play a crucial role in a follow up and review process that is “open, inclusive, participatory and transparent for all people.”
To operationalize the principles of participation and transparency, the U.S. should engage in robust and meaningful consultation with civil society to both develop national indicators for the SDGs and the national process for reporting and review. And it should offer a strong role for civil society in data collection and in the reporting and review process itself. As in the treaty review and UPR processes, the United States should offer a formal role for civil society to offer perspectives on whether and how the U.S. is making progress in achieving the SDGs by providing ample space for civil society to present data, including citizen-generated and qualitative data, for consideration during the national reporting and review cycle.
- Non-discrimination and disaggregated data
To adhere to the SDG’s mandate to “leave no one behind,” and to assess gaps in implementation, the United States should ensure that national indicators call for the collection of disaggregated data. National indicators should call for data to be disaggregated according to gender, race, income, ethnicity, national origin, disability, age, and by urban, rural, metro areas, as well as other factors linked to inequality and rights violations.
- Subnational outreach and implementation
The SDGs are meant to be implemented at every level of government, including the subnational level. Goal 11 calls for inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities. As with the human rights treaties, state and local governments are essential partners in implementation of the SDGs. Cities such as Baltimore and New York have already taken up the mantle. The federal government can further these efforts and encourage others by engaging in education and outreach to state and local officials about the U.S.’ commitments under the SDGs, and engaging state and local officials in national and local indicator formation, as well as reporting and review.
- Private sector engagement
The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda recognizes the role of the private sector in implementation of the SDGs.Core to its implementation of the SDGs, the United States should seek to measure whether and how private companies conduct themselves consistent with their human rights responsibilities, including as articulated by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The United States should incorporate a regular review of the sustainable development impacts of large businesses into its national reporting and review process, including an assessment of the impact of U.S. companies within the United States.
By modeling participation and transparency, ensuring the collection of disaggregated data, engaging in strong outreach to and engagement with state and local officials and the private sector, and integrating human rights principles into every aspect of implementation, the United States can offer a global model for implementation of the SDGs, and ensure that a universal anti-poverty agenda tackles the pressing problems of poverty and inequality at home.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Editors' Note: Following up on yesterday's post, Risa Kaufman discusses the applicable human rights law as well as the procedural posture of JEFM v. Lynch
A federal immigration judge may see no problem with requiring a three year old to represent herself against the government's efforts to deport her. But international human rights law and many jurisdictions in Europe and elsewhere in the world recognize the stark injustice in such a scenario. An amicus brief filed this week by Human Rights Watch in JEFM v. Lynch asks the 9th Circuit to do the same.
The plaintiff children in JEFM, many of whom are fleeing violence and other dangerous situations in their Central American home countries, have brought suit against the United States, claiming that the lack of a right to appointed counsel for indigent children in immigration proceedings violates the Constitution’s due process protections, as well as the federal Immigration and Nationality Act. Last year, ruling on jurisdictional grounds, the federal district court denied the government’s motion to dismiss the constitutional claims, and granted its motion to dismiss the statutory claims.
Both sides have appealed the district court’s order to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Human Rights Watch brief draws on international human rights law and foreign law to underscore the importance of preserving the federal district court as a forum for the plaintiff children’s claims. The brief was authored by Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and the law firm of Covington & Burling, LLP, with the assistance of students in the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic.
Numerous international human rights treaties recognize the necessity of appointed counsel for ensuring due process and equal justice for migrant children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination all provide support for the right to appointed legal representation for indigent children in immigration proceedings. Inter-American Court of Human Rights has likewise made clear that the right to appointed counsel for children in immigration proceedings is a key component of due process under the American Convention and the American Declaration.
Human rights experts have expressed particular concern over the lack of a right to appointed counsel for children in U.S. immigration proceedings. In 2014, during its review of U.S. compliance with the CAT, the Committee Against Torture specifically recommended that the U.S. guarantee access to counsel for minors seeking asylum in the U.S. Likewise, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination recommended that the U.S. “guarantee access to legal representation in all immigration-related matters.” And last year, after visiting the U.S. southern border to monitor the human rights situation of unaccompanied minors and families, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the U.S. to provide free legal aid for children in immigration proceedings.
Foreign law also lends support for the right to appointed counsel for indigent children in immigration proceedings. The European Court of Human Rights has increasingly recognized the right to appointed counsel when necessary to prevent the inequality of arms. And the European Parliament recently called on member states to provide free legal representatives to unaccompanied minors in immigration proceedings.
Last year, over 28,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras crossed into the United States at the southwest boarder. A study by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that many children migrating from these Central American countries reported that they were escaping violence and persecution and would face harm if forced to return home.
There is growing recognition of the injustice in forcing these children to fend for themselves in complicated and high-stakes immigration court proceedings. As articulated in the Human Rights Watch amicus brief filed this week, international human rights and foreign law lend strong support to this understanding, and compels a re-evaluation of access to justice in the United States.
Monday, February 8, 2016
Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and lecturer-in-law, Columbia Law School
Human rights are alive and well in the Florida tomato fields, according to a report released last week by the Fair Food Standards Council. The report is the third annual update on the Fair Food Program, a groundbreaking worker-driven social responsibility program based in human rights. An outgrowth of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’
(CIW) Campaign for Fair Food, the Program is combating human trafficking, forced labor, sexual assault, and wage theft within the Florida tomato industry, and securing dramatic improvements in worker health and safety conditions. According to experts discussing the new report at a launch event last week, the Program is inspiring new efforts, as well.
The Fair Food Program has its origins in CIW’s Boot the Bell campaign, an almost four year boycott of Taco Bell that led to a 2005 Fair Food Agreement with Yum Brands (parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC). Over the past ten years, the Program has grown remarkably, with retail and restaurant giants including Walmart, Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Ahold USA, and Aramark signing on. These companies pledge to buy only from tomato growers who comply with the Fair Food Standards, a human rights-based Code of Conduct, and to pay the growers an extra penny-a-pound, which is passed on the workers. The new report notes that the 14 participating companies have paid $20 million in premiums through the penny-a-pound provision.
The new report confirms improvements to the Florida tomato industry recently reported by CBS News and the New York Times. The success of the Fair Food Program was recognized by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights during its 2013 visit to the U.S. and lauded by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a White House Forum on combating human trafficking in supply chains. At the White House event, CIW was awarded a Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.
What contributes to the success of the Fair Food Program in eradicating modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato industry? At the report launch event last week, experts identified two core components of the Program: it is worker-driven, and it has an “obsessive” focus on enforcement. Workers generated the Code of Conduct underlying the program, and CIW engages in worker-to-worker education on company time and company property. Company compliance with the Code of Conduct is monitored by the Fair Foods Standards Council , which overseen by Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, a recently retired New York State Supreme Court Justice. And it is backed by market consequences. Growers who violate the code are suspended from the program. Workers can lodge complaints through a 24-hour hotline, where calls are answered by a live person.
According to the new report, there have been over 1100 complaints brought under the Code of Conduct, leading to swift resolution of labor abuses. The Fair Food Standards Council has issued approximately 120 reports and corrective action plans, based on worker interviews and audits. According to the experts at the launch event, this efficacy also drives prevention.
The Program’s success can be measured by its replication, as well. The Fair Food Campaign is inspiring workers in other industries. Transformation might come next to the dairy industry, as the Milk with Dignity Campaign gets underway. Through the farmworker organization Migrant Justice, dairy workers in Vermont, with support and collaboration from CIW and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, are adapting the Fair Food Campaign model. They recently secured an agreement of cooperation with Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
And, the Fair Food Campaign is moving into new territory, including Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey, as well as new industries, including the strawberry and bell pepper industries.
Success should be celebrated. And it should be shared. For those looking for ways to communicate the “value added” of human rights in the domestic context and the importance of worker-led social responsibility, the 2015 annual report on the Fair Food Program offers concrete data and powerful illustration.
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
In Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law, Todres and Higinbotham identify the ways in which human rights discourse appears in children’s literature, and how children’s books thus teach children about their rights and the right of others. The authors conclude that children’s literature is an “important cultural transmitter” of human rights concepts to children. Todres, a law professor at Georgia State University School of Law (and a co-editor of this Blog), and Higinbotham, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, base their conclusions, in part, on a study they conducted with school aged children. In the study, they found that kids readily identify and grasp human rights messages contained in the books they read.
The book is prompted by Article 42 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which contains the obligation to make children’s rights “widely known,” as well as social science research indicating that human rights education has a positive impact on learning, civic engagement, and social behavior.
Throughout the book, the authors explore numerous examples of the ways in which both classic and more recent children’s books convey core concepts contained in the CRC. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! and Yertle the Turtle are examined for the important lessons they impart about dignity, the universality of rights, and children’s right to participation. The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, illustrates the ways in which children’s literature can transmit and teach key human rights principles of best interests of the child and non-discrimination. The book contains counter examples, as well, including Cinderella and Curious George.
Interdisciplinary in its approach, Human Rights in Children’s Literature weaves together children’s rights law, children’s literature, human rights theory, human rights education and research, and literary theory. Chapters within the book are organized around the core rights and principles contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including participation rights, non-discrimination, right to family and identity, children’s civil and political rights, the best interests of the child, and the right to life, survival, and development, among others.
For those working to bring human rights home, the book offers important and unique insights on the role that children’s literature can play in shaping a culture of human rights, near and far.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
by Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and lecturer-in-law, Columbia Law School
Is human rights law relevant to the Court’s consideration of UT Austin’s admissions selection policy? In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Court has the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of ensuring diversity and inclusion in higher education. Such a decision would be supported by international law: equal opportunity college admissions policies help the U.S. to fulfill its human rights commitments.
At issue in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is the university’s admissions policy, which considers race among many other factors as a means of ensuring a diverse and academically qualified student body. UT Austin’s admissions policy has two components. Most students (75%) are admitted through the school’s “Top Ten Percent plan,” which guarantees admission for Texas students in the top ten percent of their high school class. The school fills the remaining slots through a holistic multi-factor review of each applicant, considering over a dozen factors, one of which is race.
This is the second time the Court has heard arguments in Fisher. The case has a well-told procedural backstory.
Directly at issue in Fisher is UT Austin’s admission policy. But the ruling could have wider implications on the ability of colleges and universities to maintain policies that seek to ensure equal opportunity and racial diversity. As the New York Times noted last week, recent activism on college campuses has amplified the conversation around race and higher education, and the stakes in Fisher feel particularly high.
What does human rights add to the mix? As noted by Human Rights Advocates and other organizations joining an international human rights amicus brief filed in Fisher, UT Austin’s admissions plan helps the United States meet its human rights commitments. And it is in line with international practice. The brief was authored by Connie de la Vega at University of San Francisco School of Law, along with Neil Popović at Sheppard Mullin.
As the human rights amicus brief notes, two of the core human rights treaties ratified by the United States support the use of holistic considerations of race in higher education admissions decisions. In particular, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), ratified by the U.S. in 1994, calls on countries to take affirmative steps to eliminate and prevent racially discriminatory practices. Article 2(2) of the Convention calls on countries to take “special and concrete measures” to guarantee and advance equality. The CERD Committee has elaborated on the meaning and scope of “special measures,” and in reviewing countries’ compliance with CERD, the Committee has emphasized their particular importance in the field of education. During the most recent review of U.S. compliance with the CERD, in 2014, the CERD Committee noted concern with policies and practices within the United States that have been adopted against the use of special measures in higher education, and recommended that the U.S. instead adopt and strengthen the use of such measures to eliminate persistent disparities.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), too, supports the use of holistic considerations of race in higher education admissions policies. In particular, Articles 2 and 26 of the ICCPR prohibit discrimination and guarantee effective protection against practices with discriminatory effects. The U.S. ratified the ICCPR in 1992. When it was reviewed by the U.N. Human Rights Committee in 2011, the U.S. noted that educational policies aimed at achieving racial diversity and avoiding racial isolation help the U.S. to implement the Covenant’s equality guarantees.
If any of the Justices do, in fact, consider international law in assessing the constitutionality of holistic considerations of race in college admissions, it would not be first time. In 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court considered the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy and affirmed the school’s compelling interest in ensuring the educational benefits of diversity in higher education, emphasizing the advantages of diversity for all students and for the country as a whole. In a concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Court’s decision was consistent with international understanding of affirmative action, citing to CERD as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). She similarly cited to CERD and CEDAW in her dissenting opinion that day in Gratz v. Bollinger.
Are Justices likely to cite directly to international law this time around? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, human rights can provide important context for their consideration of the case.
Sixty-seven amicus briefs were filed in Fisher in support of the university. These briefs note the benefits of diversity in higher education, the importance of expanding opportunity for students from all backgrounds, and the importance of preventing racial isolation in colleges and universities. Likewise, amici, including Fortune 100 companies and retired military and national defense leaders, urge the Court to consider ways in which a diverse university and workforce are in the national interest, and critical to America’s success. As the human rights amici note, ensuring equal opportunity in college admissions serves the important (and entirely consistent) function of helping to bring the United States in line with its human rights commitments, as well.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
By Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute; Lecturer-in-law, Columbia Law School
The data revolution is upon us, spurred by the UN’s adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How can U.S. advocates leverage this revolution to ensure greater domestic human rights accountability? By leading the conversation about what data to collect, and how to collect it.
As has been discussed here and here, on September 25th, the UN adopted the SDGs, or Global Goals, to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as an agenda for tackling global poverty. Grounded in human rights and applicable to all countries, the 17 goals and 169 targets cover a broad range of economic, social, and environmental issues, including gender equality, poverty, climate change, healthcare, access to justice, inequality, and many other issues.
Now that the UN has officially adopted the goals, its attention is turned to creating global and national indicators for measuring progress towards each goal, as well as developing reporting and review structures at the global and national levels. By March 2016, the UN Statistical Commission will release a set of global indicators to guide the data collection. Each country, including the United States, will be expected to form its own national-level indicators.
Here is where U.S. advocates should step in. Civil society has an important role to play in developing indicators of U.S. progress on the SDGs, and in eventually collecting and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data to measure and assess how the U.S. is doing. Human rights can and should provide the normative framework for how we measure U.S. progress on the SDGs, and a human rights framework can guide how indicators are developed.
The SDGs make clear that the process of indicator formation at the national level should be inclusive and participatory. The Obama administration has made strong statements about its intent to model domestic implementation of the SDGs, and to include civil society in domestic implementation of the SDGs. U.S. advocates can take the administration at its word by urging specific indicators, grounded in human rights, for the U.S. to use as a yard stick for assessing its progress with meeting the SDGs.
But, just how do we develop human rights-based indicators for measuring U.S. progress on the SDGs?
A 2012 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), entitled Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation, offers an important starting point. Building off of the framework contained in the OHCHR report, the Center for Social and Economic Rights recently issued a briefing paper on human rights indicators for the SDGs.
As these resources explain, the human rights framework for indicator formation requires breaking each right (or goal) to be assessed into its component parts, or attributes, and crafting measurements for both inputs (effort and conduct) and outcomes. Three categories of indicators should be applied to each component part: structural indicators, which measure a country’s commitment to ensuring rights; process indicators, which assess a country’s ongoing effort to implement human rights commitments; and outcome indicators, which measure the results (impact and effectiveness) of institutions, policies, and other processes.
The human rights framework counsels that human rights indicators include both quantitative and qualitative measures. In other words, they should include objective and fact-based indicators, as well as subjective indicators based, at least in part, on public perception.
And, consistent with the core human rights principle of non-discrimination (and the SDG’s promise to “leave no one behind”), human rights indicators must be disaggregated according to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age, and other factors contributing to inequality and rights violations.
Finally, as urged by OHCHR, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and others, in designing human rights indicators, particularly those for measuring progress on the Global Goals, data should be devised and collected by communities, organizations, and service providers working closely with people living in poverty and other marginalized groups.
With its emphasis on data and metrics, the SDGs offer domestic advocates an important new tool for ensuring U.S. human rights accountability. But the SDGs’ utility depends on the United States adopting meaningful indicators for tracking its progress towards meeting the goals, and a robust process for monitoring its implementation of the goals. U.S. advocates should not sit on the sidelines of this effort. By proposing rigorous human rights-based indicators, U.S. advocates can shape how the U.S. measures and models progress on eradicating poverty and ensuring human rights at home.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Thursday, September 10, 2015
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.
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.
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.
Monday, August 3, 2015
Risa Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, &
David Udell, National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School
Access to justice is now, quite literally, on the global agenda. The post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”), which establish a new universal anti-poverty agenda, are scheduled for a vote before the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 26 and 27th and expected to go into effect on January 1, 2016. With Goal 16 specifically focused on “access to justice”, the U.S. access to justice community should take note.
In the run up to the vote on the SDGs, the United Nations released in June its final report on the Millennium Development Goals. Since 2001, the MDGs have guided international initiatives to end poverty in the developing world. The final report credits the MDGs with significant beneficial impacts, including helping to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty and increasing the number of girls receiving a primary education. The report also acknowledges that the MDGs have fallen short in important respects, including by failing to address and reduce inequalities in and between countries.
With the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN is seeking to build on lessons learned from the MDGs. Thus, the SDGs will intentionally incorporate human rights principles, apply universally to all countries, tackle the problem of inequality in and between countries, and cover a broader range of concerns. The current UN draft of the SDGs sets forth 17 Goals and 169 Targets. In addition to access to justice in Goal 16, the SDGs address gender inequality, climate change, education, hunger, health, water and sanitation, sustainable energy, economic growth, urban development, employment, housing, and more. The significance of the SDGs’ grounding in human rights is discussed in blog posts here and here.
In setting forth its unprecedented call for access to justice, Goal 16 states that countries should “[p]romote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The goal is broadly drafted to extend to both civil and criminal justice systems, and to include good governance, legal identity, and the rule of law. Target 16.3 states that countries should “[p]romote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all.”
Just what is the basis for the UN including access to justice in global anti-poverty goals? The international community has come to the view that access to justice is essential to ending poverty, with the UN Secretary General explaining that justice is so essential that it must be viewed as one of the six themes driving all the SDGs. Access to justice helps people stabilize their lives and communities by assisting them to retain their homes, inherit property, secure safety from domestic violence, establish legal identity and citizenship, obtain health care and qualify for government benefits. Inclusion of access to justice in the SDGs is also consistent with their grounding in human rights.
The process for implementing the SDGs is still in flux. The UN’s Statistical Commission has established an Interagency Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators to create global level “indicators” to promote gathering of data. This will allow comparisons of progress by countries in implementing the SDGs and meeting the targets. Countries will also be responsible for creating their own national-level indicators for meeting the goals and targets, based on their own unique features and contexts.
For all of us working to promote human rights and access to justice in the United States, whether in the NGO community, government, or philanthropy, Goal 16 would appear to offer new opportunities for increasing access to justice as a strategic response to poverty. We have developed a list of such opportunities, available in full here.
For NGOs, these opportunities include educating stakeholders (including academics, advocates, reporters, government officials, and others) about barriers to accessing justice; educating funders about the need to support research and policy reform initiatives to improve access to justice; and strengthening data gathering, indicators, and indexing systems (like the Justice Index, www.justiceindex.org) that can help to increase access to justice. Goal 16 will offer opportunities for NGOs to strengthen reporting on access to justice, including through the human rights treaty reviews and in the Universal Periodic Review. Goal 16 can be used to promote a broad vision of civil legal aid in providing access to justice for all (“100% access”), create new alliances between reformers around the world, and increase cross-global learning about effective reform initiatives. Finally, Goal 16 can help to reinforce advocates’ efforts to accomplish important criminal justice system reforms.
For government officials, Goal 16 can be a source of support for initiatives such as DOJ’s Office for Access to Justice and the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR) in identifying ways in which support for civil legal aid can help to accomplish the anti-poverty goals of federal agencies. Goal 16 also offers support for research on access to justice, including projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation and by other federal agencies and institutes. And Goal 16 underlines the importance of legislative and appropriations initiatives that would increase access to justice by providing funding for courts, court reform initiatives, and civil and criminal legal aid.
Last, Goal 16 offers opportunities for the philanthropic sector to adopt a framework for grantmaking that reduces poverty by increasing access to justice, including in the specific contexts of family security, health care, housing, legal identity, racial justice, LGBT rights, and many other areas of importance and concern to foundations.
Even before the SDGs are formally adopted, Goal 16 is spurring conversations and activities that are promoting access to justice in countries around the world. The promise it holds for increasing access to justice in the United States ought to inspire dialogue and action here, as well.
Editors' Note: This entry is cross-posted with the blog of the National Center for Access to Justice, http://ncforaj.org/.
Monday, July 6, 2015
by Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
How can U.S. advocates more effectively work with U.N. human rights experts? A new report by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute offers recommendations based on interviews with international and domestic human rights advocates, U.N. “special procedures,” and current and former U.S. government officials.
Social justice advocates in the United States are increasingly engaging with the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations to advance their domestic work. And the U.N. special procedures have emerged as a versatile and fruitful avenue for this advocacy. Recent advocacy around the right to water in Detroit exemplifies how U.S. advocates engage with U.N. special procedures to mobilize grassroots communities, raise public awareness, exert international pressure, and engage with local, state, and national government officials around local human rights concerns.
The U.N. special procedures are independent human rights experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to monitor human rights around the world, report on violations, and recommend strategies for governments and other stakeholders to improve human rights conditions within countries. They draw upon and develop international human rights standards in their analyses. Although country visits by special procedures require consent of the countries concerned, special procedures can explore a situation in a country regardless of a State’s treaty ratification practice. This is particularly useful for U.S. advocates, given the United States’ poor track record on human rights treaty ratification.
U.S. advocates have become sophisticated in how they approach the mechanism and how they leverage their interactions to further social justice advocacy at home. The Human Rights Institute report, Engaging U.N. Special Procedures to Advance Human Rights at Home: A Guide for U.S. Advocates, is based on more than 40 interviews conducted by Columbia Law School graduates Sara Kayyali ’14, Nawal Maalouf ’15, Paula Mendez ’14 LL.M., and Ami Shah ’15 when they were students in the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic during the 2013-14 academic year.
The student team spoke with human rights advocates, current and former U.N. special procedures mandate holders, and current and former U.S. government officials to explore ways in which U.S. advocates are making strong use of the U.N. special procedures. Intended as a practical guide for U.S. advocates seeking to engage with the U.N. special procedures, the report offers recommendations for how to increase the effectiveness of domestic advocacy efforts, including by sharing successful examples. It provides an inside perspective on both the challenges and opportunities associated with the U.N. special procedures.
The report recommends that advocates carefully map how engagement with the special procedures mechanism fits into a larger international and domestic advocacy strategy prior to reaching out to the experts. Advocates should work, too, to cultivate a strong working relationship with the mandate that goes beyond one discrete interaction or intervention. The report also suggests that advocates not confine themselves to formal methods of engagement with special procedures (communications, thematic reports, and country visits), but rather that they be creative in engaging with the experts through informal methods, as well. These include extending invitations for academic convenings and unofficial visits. And the report includes strategies for following up on and implementing the recommendations of the special procedures.
Case studies and examples in the report explore recent visits to the U.S. by the U.N. experts on violence against women, the right to adequate housing, and the right to clean water and sanitation, as well as NGO advocacy with the experts on torture, and on extrajudicial killings.
The report may come in handy as U.S. advocates prepare for the upcoming visit by the U.N. Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice. Advocates can mine its pages, too, for suggestions on how to leverage results from previous U.S. visits by U.N. experts and develop new relationships around other emerging and pressing issues.
In the words of one expert: “The times when I have really felt that what I’ve done is worthwhile are when advocates have taken my work and run with it.”
Thursday, April 30, 2015
The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute is happy to announce that registration is now open for the 2015 Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers' Network Annual Human Rights in the US Symposium/CLE. This year's program, entitled "Engaging with the Inter-American System for US Advocacy," will take place on June 12 in New York City. The program will provide an overview of the Inter-American human rights system for U.S. lawyers, examine strategies for effective engagement with and leveraging successful outcomes from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and explore opportunities and challenges within the Inter-American human rights system more generally.
The event is co-sponsored by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Robert F. Kennedy Partners for Human Rights, International Justice Resource Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the University of Pennsylvania Transnational Legal Clinic. Skadden Arps is our generous host.
A detailed agenda and the link to register for the event is here. The event is open to all, and free for attorneys and persons who are serving in public interest organizations (including government, academic, and non- and not-for profit organizations) or are experiencing financial hardship.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
Local human rights declarations appear to be trickling up to the federal level. A post earlier this week reported on the latest round of local human rights resolutions related to domestic violence, with Ithaca becoming the 23rd U.S. city to declare freedom from domestic violence to be a fundamental human right. These efforts join the ranks of local human rights resolutions and declarations related to other domestic issues, including those declaring housing to be a human right.
Recently, human rights language has begun to appear in Presidential proclamations, as well. Two examples surfaced just this month. In proclaiming April to be Child Abuse Prevention Month, President Obama states, “we reaffirm the fundamental human rights of all children to live free from violence and abuse.” The Presidential Proclamation declaring April to be National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month recognizes the fundamental human right to be free from sexual assault and domestic violence.
Add these new examples to previous Presidential proclamations recognizing the relevance of human rights in the domestic context. As reported here, in September 2014, on the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, President Obama signed a Presidential proclamation affirming “the basic human right to be free from violence and abuse." The following month, the President included a similar statement in proclaiming October to be National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
The federal government has recently acknowledged the relevance of human rights in other domestic policy contexts, too. For example, on its website, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness recognizes the human right to housing, noting that it “means more than protecting people from discrimination; it means ensuring that all Americans have appropriate levels of housing assistance.”
Can advocates working at the local level take at least partial credit for the federal government’s adoption of such human rights language? And, more importantly, what impact might this language have?
For years, human rights scholars including Judith Resnik, Catherine Powell, and Martha Davis have articulated the importance of state and local recognition and implementation of human rights as a means of influencing and contributing to national policy, including human rights compliance, and to integration of human rights norms at the national level, more generally.
For sure, the inclusion of human rights language in Presidential proclamations and other statements by the federal government in contexts where localities have similarly proclaimed the importance of human rights is promising. At the very least, such statements indicate an emerging acceptance of a human rights framework, including the recognition that every level of government has the obligation to promote and protect the dignity and equality of all people.
Thus, the “trickle up” is encouraging.
And perhaps human rights will “trickle in,” as well. Ultimately, such language will be meaningful only if the result is a fuller integration of human rights principles at the policy level. Here, too, the federal government might do well to look to (and, indeed, support) growing examples of robust state and local human rights implementation.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Monday, March 16, 2015
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.