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Thinking Internationally - Acting Locally

by Judith Blau

Americans ignored Martin Luther King when he urged that the civil rights movement broaden to become a human rights movement just as the nation earlier ignored FDR when he proposed a bold human rights framework for the US. Human rights are not part of the American psyche, are not part of our laws, are rarely mentioned in the media, and they are not in the US Constitution. To be sure, Civil and Political Rights are part of our Constitution, but these are citizens' rights, not human rights. America had a short flirtation with human rights, in the disorienting post-World War II period. Europe was in ruins and America was magnanimous. Shortly after the UN was founded in 1945, a small committee was formed to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The US was supportive and the committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The US signed the 1948 UDHR, not a legal treaty but a document of great international significance, still today.

The initial idea in 1948 was to redraft the UDHR as a treaty and send it out to states for their signatures and ratification, but the United States became increasingly adamant as the Cold War dragged on that it would not ratify a treaty that was such a bold challenge to the rights of capitalists. The UDHR advances civil and political rights as well as property rights, but it also encompasses social security, freedom from discrimination, and spells out certain rights - the right to work, to an adequate standard of living, to adequate food, to medical care, to assistance in old age, to special protections for mothers and children, and to education. The stalemate was finally broken when the UDHR was divided into two: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The truth of the matter is that the US is party to neither. It uses a legal loophole so that its signature on the ICCPR is not binding ("not self executing").

Students in my two classes this semester read the constitutions of other countries. In one class the focus was human rights (housing rights, gay and lesbian rights, rights of indigenous peoples, rights to peace, healthcare rights, rights of women, and so forth). In the other, the focus was labor rights (collective bargaining, decent pay, maternity leave, vacation with pay, and so forth). University of Richmond Law School provides online access to almost all state constitutions with English translations. Remarkably, most countries have recently revised and expanded their constitutional human rights provisions along the lines of international human rights law.

Empowered, the students decided to have a Mock Constitutional Convention where they would ceremoniously unfurl their nearly 60 Amendments they had written during the semester. We invited a few local leaders to join the conversation and to briefly speak - the Mayor of Chapel Hill, the Mayor of Carrboro, labor organizers from the University of North Carolina, NAACP members, and local activists. The two mayors are justifiably proud of their progressive cities. They have collective bargaining whereas the state and university do not. The residents of Carrboro recently voted to impeach Bush. Chapel Hill is one of the nation's leading cities on green energy, and both mayors are pleased their municipalities advance the rights of gays and lesbians. Both mayors described their towns as having (their words) "human rights orientations."

Is there a problem? You bet there is. Like all American cities Carrboro and Chapel Hill are plagued by human rights abuses: homelessness, inadequate health care, food insecurity, inadequate labor protections, low wages, long work hours, migrants who live in terror of raids, discrimination, obscene gaps between black and white incomes, and growing numbers without health insurance. Protection of farmers' rights is incomplete as is realization of equality for African Americans and other minorities, and since human rights and environmental protections go hand in hand, it is imperative that the two cities cut carbon emissions, reduce reliance on private automobiles, and have race- and class-neutral policies for waste sites.

We have come full circle. Chapel Hill and Carrboro cities are situated in capitalist America, a nation where the gap between the wealthy and the poor is greater than any other industrialized country, a nation with the highest child poverty rates among all the OECD countries, and, indeed, the US has not ratified a single human rights treaty. Is it hopeless? Set this aside for a moment and consider that countries around the world, all mostly poor, all much poorer than the US, have revised their constitutions to embrace human rights. My next point has astonishing implications. An international network, People's Movement for Human Rights Education, is assisting cities around the world to become Human Rights Cities. Most that have started pilot projects face far more complex challenges than any American city does, including deep, structural poverty (Timbuktu, Mali) and one, decades of civil war and genocide (Musha, Rwanda). Others in the network are in capitalist countries, including Winnipeg, Canada, and one American city, Eugene, Oregon is not in the network but models itself along similar lines.

Before we shrug and toss off the idea that American cities do not have the democratic capacity for such projects, we should recall that when Tocqueville came to America in 1831 he found communities to be animated, inclusive, and highly participatory. Because many American cities are still today potentially democratic, we can turn to them again to advance deeper forms of democracy and to propose they be Human Rights Cities. This requires building broad coalitions and partnerships, and beyond that, reaching out and involving all citizens as economic and social security expands and becomes universal, and as cultural and social pluralism more securely anchored.

Judith Blau teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and is president of the US chapter of Sociologists without Borders.

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