Human rights are a powerful tool to break barriers, unite people in common cause, and show us the way to justice within and beyond our borders. Activists across the country are defining a new patriotism.
Looking at the United States through the lens of human rights illuminates persistent inequities in U.S. society and offers an alternative view of how it can and should be changed. The United States has been rightly proud of its historical leadership in global human rights. As the country's conduct slips away from its aspirations, it is time to reclaim that leadership role by bringing human rights home.
The movement for human rights in the United States promotes this alternative vision. It seeks a revolution of values in the United States that makes affirmation of human dignity and equality the center of domestic and foreign policy.
But no theory of change can be realized without firm grounding in practical reality. In a world of fear-based politics and official policies of trading rights for promises of safety, what evidence is there that a human-rights based approach can succeed in the United States? The work that produced the Ford Foundation report Close to Home: Case Studies of Human Rights Work in the United States revealed abundant evidence. Here are the factors we identified that are making a human rights movement in this country a reality.
A Changing Domestic Environment
Activists and others consulted for Close to Home find that, across the American Indian, civil, women's, worker, gay, immigrant, and prisoner rights communities in the United States, a powerful new politics of social justice is emerging. This new politics favors multi- over single-issue work, understands discrimination in terms of compound rather than singular identities, conceives of rights holistically rather than in terms of outmoded hierarchies, and situates those most affected at the center of advocacy.
“There is simply no better way to broaden the influence and effectiveness of all our struggles for social justice than through human rights,” says Loretta Ross, a pioneering civil and women's rights, and now U.S. human rights activist who founded the National Center for Human Rights Education. The human rights vision readily accommodates new forms of U.S. social justice activism and also offers powerful means for their expression.
Engagement with the Larger World
The emergence of a U.S. human rights movement also reflects dramatic developments outside the United States. The horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, shattered probably forever the separation of foreign from domestic concerns. For the first time since the Cold War, the United States is engaged in a vast public conversation about its role in the world and the implications of that role at home and abroad.
This hard-earned global consciousness has spawned a growing domestic interest in multilateralism, and in the international legal and political system, especially among people concerned with the defense of fundamental rights.
“Our struggle never has been a purely local struggle,” says worker and human rights activist Jaribu Hill, who co-founded The Mississippi Worker's Center for Human Rights. “It's just that we can no longer afford to disregard the global link. Whatever happens ‘over there' has implications here.”
The development of a U.S. human rights movement is driven in part by the desire to reclaim the full legacy and meaning of international human rights. It is also driven, perhaps more than anything else, by the potential of human rights to restore to U.S. social justice work a sense of the underlying commonality of simply being human that is often lost to all of its divisions by identity, geography, issue area and belief. As Cheri Honkala, an economic human rights activist who heads the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, puts it, “We base our vision in the essence of being human.”
Many factors have contributed to the beginning of a potentially transformative human rights movement in the United States: dynamic changes in U.S. social justice activism, increased awareness of the importance of U.S. multilateralism and the relevance of the international legal and political system to domestic as well as foreign rights policy, and an instinctive desire to reassert the common human dimension of all social justice work. What remains at issue is how this movement can strengthen U.S. social justice work that is increasingly global in character, indivisible in approach, diverse in constituency, and righteous in process as well as effect.
Strengths of Using Human Rights
The idea of using a human rights framework to promote change in the United States is relatively new. As it gains currency, those using it find it offers tools not available in other settings.
By all accounts, the single greatest value of employing human rights in U.S. social justice work is its vision of rights as intrinsic to the status of being human. Indeed, human rights are the expression of what is required to be fully human. These rights are not dependent on recognition by an external authority. They are not a reward for certain behaviors or for enjoying a certain status such as citizen or property owner or white person. They belong to all human beings equally.
Human rights assert the inalienability of rights in a much broader sense than has ever been expressed constitutionally. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The simple use of the term human rights instead of women's or workers' or prisoners' or immigrants' rights, for example, elicits an understanding of rights as inherently the same for all people rather than as defined by this or that particular status.
To some, this may all seem like little more than semantics. But, as Widney Brown, former deputy program director of Human Rights Watch puts it, reframing one's work in human rights terms “takes you back to the primacy of equality and dignity no matter what the circumstance. Once you reassert that basic principle, people's perceptions of the problem change and new avenues for advocacy open up.”
Expansive legal framework
One of these “new avenues” is clearly the legal arena. For many activists who work in a framework of the Constitution and domestic statutes, the idea of an alternative, inalienable, universal source of legal rights is something of a revelation. Given the longstanding determination of the United States government to shield itself from any meaningful international human rights obligations, it is usually met with skepticism.
But U.S. legal experts are increasingly converting their skepticism about human rights into a growing appreciation of its use, as environmental justice attorney Monique Harden puts it, “to break out of the chokehold of domestic law.” The context for this conversion is remarkably similar across issue areas: the growing conservatism of the courts, diminishing remedies for grievous abuse, and, especially after September 11, the attack on established rights and liberties, including due process, access to counsel and the courts, equal protection, and freedom of information, all of which limit or block the use of purely domestic remedies for rights violations. “I was as skeptical as the next person about the relevance of human rights to domestic legal advocacy,” Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, told a group of human rights funders in July 2003. “But in the last five years or so I've undergone a conversion, particularly post 9/11. Human rights give us another place to go.”
That “other place” involves interpretive and binding uses of human rights law, which often offers stronger protections than U.S. law, in both U.S. and international courts. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, for -example, uses a combination of grassroots organizing and legal advocacy to frame the death penalty in the United States as a violation of human rights.
As a result of its efforts, and those of other anti-death-penalty activists, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that execution of mentally retarded people violates the Eighth Amendment. That decision was followed by a 2005 ban on the execution of people who were juveniles when they committed their crime. In addition to finding such executions unconstitutional and a violation of public consensus, the Court noted that they violate the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In other cases, human rights law, with its greater protections, is used in a more binding manner. At times, when all avenues of domestic relief have been exhausted, such binding human rights decisions are pursued in regional or international bodies. In the last two years, human rights groups have participated in providing shadow reports to United Nations bodies monitoring U.S. compliance with treaties and conventions. More than 140 groups presented evidence to the Committee Against Torture and the Human Rights Committee as those bodies examined the United States' official reports on fulfillment of its obligations under international law.
While the legal community takes a gradual stance toward incorporating human rights values, community-based educators, organizers, and fact-finders take a more immediate approach. Human rights involves an affirmation of dignity and equality that resonates powerfully with the often impoverished, abused, and structurally decimated communities in which many of them work. “As welfare reform kicked in, we were concerned that poor people would turn against each other over the crumbs that trickle down,” Ethel Long-Scott of the Women's Economic Agenda Project says. “The Universal Declaration allowed for a common vision of opportunity and well-being for all people.”
For many of the most affected U.S. communities, this common vision of opportunity and well-being for all can be revolutionary, but only if they know it exists. “To have a human rights movement,” Loretta Ross told us, “people first have to know what their human rights are.”
Human rights have the potential to alter the dynamics of social change work, in which the “affected” and their advocates can become somewhat estranged. As poor people, workers, immigrants, women, gays, prisoners and others become aware of their human rights and organize to defend them, they gradually become the agents rather than the objects of social change. This begins to alter the power balance between those who experience human rights abuse and those who act on their behalf, moving them from a client/professional relationship toward a more equal partnership. To some observers, this may seem like a subtle shift. But its value in terms of sustaining long-term, community-based advocacy for social change may be far-reaching.
A unifying framework
As human rights help to transform U.S. social justice methods, they also support the emergence of new, multidimensional advocacy strategies.
In pursuit of cross-identity advocacy, for example, the Women's Institute for Leadership Development for Human Rights used human rights to take an integrated approach to the elimination of gender and race discrimination in San Francisco. The institute found that, absent a human rights framework, the city's anti-discrimination policy was too compartmentalized and reactive to protect women and girls, particularly those of color, from bias and abuse. The use of human rights enabled anti-discrimination activists, who were otherwise segregated by identity and issue area, to come together under a common framework, focus their efforts and make policy more responsive to the double burden of gender and race discrimination in the lives of women and girls.
The search for a similar link led Jaribu Hill to found the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights. Hill, a veteran of both the civil and workers' rights movements, saw in human rights a way to link the disparate and at times even antagonistic strands of civil rights and economic justice. In her view, to think of civil and economic rights as separate is simply no longer responsive to the experience of poor people of color in the South, in the country, or in the world. By putting them together, Hill says, “human rights lead to more systematic change.”
When all the dimensions of a human rights approach—vision, framework, method, and strategy—come together in one focused effort, they produce an immensely powerful effect. But the further development of a movement for human rights in the United States is not a magic bullet. Any demand for full-scale application of international human rights law, even those parts already ratified by Congress, faces resistance from those steeped in American exceptionalism. People raised on the notion that the United States is the world's standard-bearer for human rights will not lightly surrender that belief.
Exceptionalism is not new in U.S. domestic and foreign policy. In the last half of the 20th century, the United States opted out of international agreements on arms control, the environment, international justice, economic rights, and rights for women, children, immigrants, and prisoners. The beginning of the new century saw a movement backward on issues such as torture and civil rights. But there are signs that those trends are not without limits; that there may be a point beyond which Americans will no longer tolerate the gap between image and reality.
Human rights advocates also encounter mistrust of a new and unfamiliar approach. Giving up single-issue advocacy in favor of the embracing concept of rights based on humanity may seem dangerous. Yet those working with the human rights framework universally -report that their work becomes both stronger and more inclusive as they move away from a single-issue approach.
Human rights work challenges the notion of U.S. superiority that is part of the national identity. Americans are justly proud of their Constitution and of the country's historical position as a human rights leader. The news that a broader framework exists and is being implemented elsewhere frequently leads to questions about patriotism.
This suggests that among the challenges facing the U.S. human rights movement—the exceptionalism of the U. S. government, the concerns of social justice advocates, and the attitudes of the public—one of the deepest is how to communicate its message. This task is complicated and will have to be tackled with considerable patience and expertise.
Ultimately, the need to disrupt the increasingly worrisome connection between unilateralism and patriotism in the United States is one of the major reasons why activists argue that U.S. human rights work is so crucial. They see efforts to make concrete links -between local and global rights activists, and between domestic and international systems of justice, as one way to help change the increasingly popular perception in this country that cooperative engagement with the world is somehow un-American. In this sense, human rights activists in the United States are trying, along with their counterparts in many other disciplines, to reclaim the traditions in this country that contributed so much to the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, as Langston Hughes once so memorably wrote, “let America be America again.”