From the Front Lines

Early in the Clinton administration, the United Nations Human Rights Commission was holding hearings in New York on the compliance of various member states — including, for the first time, the United States — with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I was there because I was working at Human Rights Watch, but in the gallery observing the proceedings were a number of more surprising visitors — not just the professional UN watchers but a wide variety of advocates for civil rights and social justice, some of them quite poor themselves.

They came, I realized, because they saw in the body of international human-rights standards a tool for advancing their own work on behalf of the most marginalized of Americans: prisoners, poor people, and immigrants. Despite their disparate concerns, they were drawn by the same global vision, one more supportive of their goals, in many cases, than the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. human-rights movement has grown in scope and strategic and intellectual sophistication since then, though it is still without a manifesto or a dominant organization. The best way to take its measure today is through a series of recent short reports, all of which are available on the Web.

These two reports — the first by the Ford Foundation, which has done more than any other organization to nurture and build the U.S. human-rights movement, and the second by a recently established network of advocacy groups — provide a good overview. The Ford report’s introduction, written by program officer Larry Cox and consultant Dorothy Q. Thomas, describes the “revolution of values” represented by the new human-rights movement, which “counters unilateral tendencies with multilateral commitments, shared with other countries, to promote social and economic justice on a global scale.” “Something Inside” catalogs the unexpectedly wide range of resources available to those who would hold America to international human-rights standards.

Neither report tries to hide the movement’s frustrations. A number of the Ford report’s case studies underscore how long such efforts take and how uncertain the results are. The Indian Law Resource Center, for instance, filed complaints with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — along with the UN committee that monitors the international race convention — about the U.S. government’s handling of a Western Shoshone land dispute. It took more than a decade to win reports in the Native Americans’ favor from the two international agencies, and the U.S. government rejected both reports “in [their] entirety.”

“Something Inside” reminds us that this route has distinguished antecedents: Marcus Garvey, for example, submitted complaints about U.S. abuses against people of color to the League of Nations in 1920, Cayuga Nation Chief Deskaheh did the same for indigenous people three years later; and W.E.B. DuBois petitioned the United Nations in 1951 to protest Jim Crow practices.

Nonetheless, today’s efforts seem to hold a promise based on the growing range of organizations pursuing an international approach to American issues.

Until the formation of the U.S. Human Rights Network, the leading organization devoted to advancing human rights in the United States through appeal to international standards was probably the Women’s Institute for Leadership Development for Human Rights (WILD), which has mobilized tremendous grass-roots energy for its campaign to move the United States toward ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Though it has been a long time since mainstream rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund were dominated by lawyers and lawsuits, many people still think of them as organizations for lawyers only and have hungered for a chance to play a direct role in rights campaigns. WILD has provided this opportunity in a campaign that led the San Francisco City Council to adopt CEDAW as city law, and in a subsequent “gender audit” of discriminatory practices by city agencies.

WILD was a convener, in 1999, of the first known meeting of U.S. human-rights advocates — all of them women — from a variety of organizations. “Making the Connection” reports the conclusions reached there about the direction of the emerging human-rights movement. The CEDAW report compiled by Milani, et al. lucidly debunks the claims made by CEDAW’s opponents about the impact of this international treaty on U.S. law and practice.

The most exciting of the early documents in the U.S. human-rights movements not only apply international standards to U.S. behavior but do so in a realm that has been largely ignored by traditional U.S. rights organizations: economic and social rights. Indeed, the United States, joined for much of the postwar period by the leading U.S. rights organizations, has been grudging at best and hostile at worst to the very notion of economic and social rights. More than in any other area, this is where U.S. law and political culture are out of step with the rest of the world.

As Cass R. Sunstein describes elsewhere in this issue, there have been opportunities to establish economic and social protections — the guarantee of a job, food, a decent home, and medical care — as rights in America. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for that in 1944, and Lyndon Johnson saw his Great Society as an expansion of the Bill of Rights. But today it falls to feisty grass-roots advocates to advance this vision.

“Hunger Is No Accident” opens with a succinct statement of the value of a human-rights approach to hunger and poverty, converting “needs into rights.” As former Attorney General Ramsey Clark famously said, “A right is not what someone gives you; it is what no one can take away from you.” The human-rights approach also “internationalizes” the struggle for economic and social justice. As Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch publications have done for two decades, the “Hunger” report details example after example of onerous requirements and restrictions that government agencies place on poor people seeking food or job assistance and concludes with specific recommendations for action.

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) is widely acknowledged as a leader in marrying human-rights standards — the right, for instance, to workplace safety — with grass-roots activism for economic justice. Its 1999 report grew out of a nationwide bus tour that featured marches and hearings in 35 communities around the United States. Whereas “Hunger is No Accident” features many compelling statistics, the KWRU report is striking for its human testimony, such as that of a man whose name is given only as Esteban and whose “workfare” assignment is cleaning buses for the city of San Francisco. As the KWRU report describes it: “He removes graffiti from at least six buses a day using a caustic solution that burns his skin on contact. The cheap latex gloves he is issued are not strong enough to prevent him and his co-workers from developing chemical lesions, sores and infections on their hands. The only time that Esteban receives additional protective equipment … is when Municipal workplace inspectors arrive to conduct their 5-month yard check-ups. The next day, it’s back to the rubber gloves and paper jumpsuit.”

This report, introduced by Katarina Tomasevski, the UN special rapporteur on the right to education, draws on lessons and experiences from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso to suggest a small but significant step that would advance accountability in New York City’s education system: the establishment of an ombudsman empowered with the independence and resources to make the voices of parents and communities heard.