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Human Rights in the Age of Obama

Ajamu Baraka is the executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of more than 250 human rights and social justice organizations working to hold the United States accountable to international human rights standards. YES! Magazine board member Tanya Dawkins talked to him about housing, direct action, and why human rights are relevant during the recession.
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Homeless in New York, photo by drocpsu

Homelessness is on the rise in the United States. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services."

Photo by drocpsu

Tanya Dawkins: How are you feeling about the domestic human rights movement right now?

Ajamu Baraka: I’m feeling pretty good, even though we have some very real challenges as a movement. The election of Barack Obama provides opportunities as well as some very interesting political challenges. Under the Bush Administration, the targets of our advocacy, organizing, and education work were pretty clear. With Obama’s election and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, we find ourselves struggling against the tendency some might have to believe that we can relax and just engage in quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

But experience has taught us that it is still important for human rights defenders to push the envelope to make sure we are advancing our demands in a very clear, powerful, and coordinated way.

Before this crisis, issues around housing, jobs, and health care were framed as issues that only the market could address. The state’s role was to primarily facilitate market forces.

Now questions that speak to the proper role of the state are being raised. What is its role in ensuring that people have dignified lives? Does it have a responsibility ensure that people have a place to lay their heads, food to eat, access to health care, a clean environment, effective educational institutions?

So for the first time in 30 years, there is a real opportunity to push back on the ideological ascendancy of the Right, which has been pretty successful in convincing people of the superior efficiency of the private market system and that anything the state touches will be screwed up.

We believe that we can only realize human rights when there are links between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and that the only way we’ll advance collective human rights is through building social movements.

This is where the power of the human rights framework comes in. This framework provides clear values around issues of human dignity and justice that help people to understand both the proper role of the government and the proper limitations on a private market system.

Framing these issues not just in terms of policy choices, but in terms of fundamental human rights, puts a whole other level of demand on the table.

Tanya: Is the U.S. living up to its domestic human rights obligations?

Ajamu: The main issue that is impacting us all is the economic situation, including the government’s response to the meltdown. Across the country, many organizations have embraced the human rights framework, reframing the policy discussions and struggles in the context of human rights demands.

The crisis, for example, has had disproportional impacts on minority communities. Under the terms of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the state is required to formulate policies that specifically address these unfair impacts. But because those considerations weren’t part of the discussion around the stimulus package, the stimulus has not been as effective or equitable as it could have been.

Tanya:  Speaking of CERD, last year, the U.S. Human Rights Network organized a major delegation to Geneva to present a Shadow Report responding to the official government report on U.S. compliance with these treaty obligations.

Ajamu: With the signing and ratification of a treaty, a country is obligated to submit certain periodic reports to the treaty body responsible for monitoring compliance. In the case of CERD, the US is required to submit reports every four years. As a part of this process, civil society, popular forces and other non-governmental organizations can submit what is known as a shadow report, reflecting their perspective on a government’s treaty compliance.

The US Human Rights Network coordinated with more than 400 organizations in the development of the CERD Shadow Report. The final 700-page report covered a wide variety of issues that the US government did not address in its response. We then organized a delegation of more than 120 activists, including a very strong contingent of young people, in order to have a physical presence at the hearing in Geneva. It was an amazing sight to see these young people, many of whom had never left the country before, doing serious human rights work at the UN.

The CERD Committee issued 34 Concluding Observations, which document the degree to which a government is in compliance with its treaty obligations and outline any steps that must be taken. Of these, five required action and response within 12 months—including the Western Shoshone land issue, racial profiling, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for child offenders, ongoing Katrina displacement, and the government’s failure to properly inform the public of the existence of the CERD treaty, which requires that all levels of government, including state and local, bring their laws and practices into compliance.

Tanya: A good bit of the CERD report dealt with housing. Who could have predicted that the housing issue would be front and center for so many people in the United States just a year later? How is this playing out in terms of building the domestic human rights movement?

This May, the Take Back the Land Initiative is going to be putting people across the country back in their homes through direct actions.

Ajamu: In this country, adequate housing is not seen as a fundamental human right.  The worst housing crisis we’ve experienced in decades was not just the result of the mortgage meltdown, but also of the systematic elimination of affordable housing that took place in this country over the last three decades.

It’s more important than ever to put very concrete demands on the government to develop programs and to earmark resources for housing.

We are developing and supporting a new initiative called “Take Back the Land” to highlight the role of various banks whose predatory lending targeted minority communities—and that have failed to provide mortgage adjustments to allow people to stay in their homes.

Champlain Housing TrustCommuntiy Land Trust Keeps Housing Affordable
The first municipally funded community land trust kept longtime residetns of Burlington, Vermont from being priced out of their own neighborhoods. 

The campaign will also highlight the systematic elimination of public housing. The most graphic example is what took place and is still taking place in New Orleans. In the midst of a housing crisis, there were thousands of people, scattered across the country, who wanted to return to New Orleans’ perfectly sound public housing. The government, instead, decided to raze some 5,000 units of public housing—violating international human rights standards that protect people displaced as a consequence of natural disasters or human-made disasters.

This campaign also suggests that, given the public bailout of banks, the homes that these banks are re-appropriating are not private property but are, in fact, houses to which the public has a right.

In May, during a 30-day campaign, the Take Back the Land Initiative is going to be putting people across the country back in their homes through direct actions. This is one of the ways that the campaign will operationalize the demand that the government re-direct adequate resources for affordable housing to poor, working people.

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