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World leaders also called for things a majority of Americans support, such as universal health care, gender pay equity, and more serious action to address climate change.(Photo: should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

World leaders also called for things a majority of Americans support, such as universal health care, gender pay equity, and more serious action to address climate change.(Photo: should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

Communities Look Beyond Washington for Solutions to Human Rights Threats

We have seen over the past four years that the U.S. political system is unable to hold leaders accountable even to its own Constitution, and we’re watching as the system’s legitimacy crumbles, along with protections for basic rights and the most vulnerable.

Jackie SmithJoshua Cooper

Less than one week after seeing record voter turnout in its national election, the United States faced the third United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record. This review saw unprecedented engagement from people across the country, as activists worked to “speak truth to power” by appealing to the world in the face of dangerous political polarization and disturbing erosions of basic human rights protections.

Helping bring grassroots voices to the global stage, the US Human Rights Network provided a civil society stakeholder report for the official record, compiling analyses from more than 100 organizations around the country. And the U.S. Human Rights Cities Alliance submitted its report, "Corporate Influence Threatens Human Rights in Communities Nationwide", highlighting the specific challenges the nation’s cities face in carrying out human rights obligations.

Advocates conveyed deep concerns that the trampling of core democratic values such as tolerance, empathy, participation, and equality has deepened authoritarian threats to a degree that a change in administration alone cannot solve. 

Over recent months, these networks also organized briefings to inform international leaders about the state of human rights in the communities around the country and advise them as they prepared their recommendations to the U.S. government. A key emphasis in these accounts was the systemic oppression and terror experienced by people of color in the United States. Although this is not a new problem, Trump administration policies have generated new and more urgent threats to the safety and livelihoods of many residents—especially people of color.

In a briefing organized by the ACLU, USHRN and other groups, families of victims of police violence, political prisoners, and incarcerated people sentenced to death provided first-hand testimony about U.S. prison conditions and racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Advocates conveyed deep concerns that the trampling of core democratic values such as tolerance, empathy, participation, and equality has deepened authoritarian threats to a degree that a change in administration alone cannot solve.

In reaching out to international allies, human rights advocates are reviving the “Appeal to the World” of early civil rights movement leaders in 1947. Today’s movements for racial justice hope to show U.S. leaders that “the world is watching,” and that change must come. Over coming months and years, these groups will be working to broaden their networks and inform communities and policy makers about the UPR process and its recommendations. Many of these recommendations reflect formal legal commitments of the U.S. government and are legally binding, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

A key obstacle to human rights is that the international community’s main enforcement tool is public scrutiny, along with popular and international moral pressure. In essence, we the people are responsible for policing the appointed guardians of rights and liberty. A growing array of monitoring mechanisms such as UPR can help strengthen the public’s abilities to ensure that their governments comply with global human rights expectations. The UPR recommendations are thus critical resources for “human rights enforcers.” But to make these useful, local residents and activists in communities must organize to help bring these human rights protections home. As more people learn to use them, we’re seeing results after just two iterations of the UPR process—despite a lack of legal enforcement methods. Nearly half of UPR recommendations have triggered some action by governments to improve human rights practices (See The World, Nov. 16, 2020; upr-info.org).

By engaging with the UPR process, U.S. civil society recognizes that the United States can learn from the rest of the world. Activists are intentional in carrying out a political strategy of working with the international community to hold U.S. political leaders accountable to international human rights norms and legal standards. Scholars have named this the “boomerang strategy,” where oppressed groups appeal to the global community to press  their governments from outside national borders. U.S. civil rights leaders used a similar strategy to force the federal government to enforce U.S. law against recalcitrant state and local authorities in the U.S. south.

Even government representatives from state and local governments have embraced this boomerang strategy. Earlier this year officials from across the country issued a statement in support of the UPR, stating: “As the United States Federal Government flouts its human rights obligations at home and abroad, it falls to state and local governments to honor this nation’s commitment to human rights.…[W]e stand ready to cooperate and collaborate with communities in the United States and abroad, and to partner with our counterparts around the globe to live up to human rights ideals.”

Another recurring recommendation was for the United States to follow the example of most other countries of the world by creating a national human rights body to coordinate the local implementation of international human rights obligations.

We have seen over the past four years that the U.S. political system is unable to hold leaders accountable even to its own Constitution, and we’re watching as the system’s legitimacy crumbles, along with protections for basic rights and the most vulnerable. The pandemic has heightened awareness of the intersections of human rights and the safety and security of all people. Those who fear for the future should both take hope in this possibility for global solidarity and commit to helping realize its impact.

Significantly, the United States UPR review comes as a new Biden-Harris administration will prepare to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council and work to restore relationships with the rest of the world after four years of Trump’s nationalist, unilateralist foreign policy. Although the current administration has tried to portray itself as a global human rights leader while dismissing multilateral bodies like the Human Rights Council, its strategy of manipulating “fake news” to rally support is less effective outside U.S. borders. As U.S. residents work to reverse deep divisions and loss of faith in its institutions and media, international allies and truth-telling processes will be essential.

Using the UPR process, activists have helped expose the reality of U.S. human rights conditions to the world, and global leaders are calling for changes for which activists have long struggled. For instance, here and in an Urgent Debate in the Human Rights Council this summer, a number of countries called on the U.S. government to take meaningful steps to punish police wrongdoing and bring justice to families such as those of George Floyd. Attempts to deflect such criticisms with misleading claims about protester violence were not terribly convincing to this audience of international leaders.

The UPR testimony also challenged U.S. claims to be a human rights leader, calling on it to ratify major human rights conventions—such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women—treaties already accepted by most other countries in the world. And they urged the U.S. government to comply with the few treaties it has ratified—such as CERD—by addressing housing discrimination and gun violence in particular.

Another recurring recommendation was for the United States to follow the example of most other countries of the world by creating a national human rights body to coordinate the local implementation of international human rights obligations. Such a body would, for instance, ensure that local police forces are informed about global human rights laws and best practices. World leaders also called for things a majority of Americans support, such as universal health care, gender pay equity, and more serious action to address climate change. Many specified concerns over the continuing use of the death penalty, migrant detentions, and gender discrimination, illustrating how far out of step the United States is from other Western countries.

The United Nations was created to prevent the abuses of rights that plunged us into World War II. By working to strengthen its capacities, community activists and citizens can help the Biden-Harris administration restore U.S. global leadership as the world struggles to address urgent social, health, and ecological crises.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. She is author or editor of numerous books and articles on global organizing and social change, including "Social Movements and World-System Transformation," "Social Movements in the World-System: the Politics of Crisis and Transformation," and "Social Movements for Global Democracy." She helps coordinate Pittsburgh’s Human Rights City Alliance and is a member of the steering committee of the US Human Rights Network’s Human Rights Cities Alliance.

Joshua Cooper

Joshua Cooper is the executive director of Hawai'i Institute for Human Rights and lecturer in Political Science at the University of Hawai'i. He serves on the national steering committee of the US Human Rights Cities Alliance.

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