Hope for Human Rights on a Snowy Day

Last Friday, senior members of five government agencies held a meeting with about 2 dozen domestic human rights organizations to gather their input as part of the government’s preparation to submit its report for the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on how the U.S. is meeting its human rights obligations.  Just one of hundreds of meetings of advocates and government officials that happen every day in Washington, DC.  But as I rode the train home from the UPR consultation, I really started to think about this meeting and what it meant to me personally.

For the past six years, since I graduated from law school, one of my main professional goals has been to generate a real domestic human rights dialogue in this country using these UN human rights treaty processes and mechanisms as a point for beginning the conversation.  For five of those years, under the Bush Administration, we met with officials in the State Department who were responsible for dealing with these human rights treaties. But as domestic advocates, we knew that the State Department wasn’t who we really needed to talk to – it was HUD, or the DOJ, or the Education Department – the agencies who make policy that affects the people whose rights we work to protect.  We demanded that these agencies be brought into the process, not just for the State Department to gather information from, but for State to send the recommendations of the human rights monitoring bodies to, so they could implement them.  And we demanded that these agencies be brought into a conversation with advocates so we could talk directly to them about their human rights obligations.For five years, we made incremental progress, but not much in terms of tangible change.  This was tremendously frustrating, but as advocates, we knew that we couldn’t give up.  And even though we couldn’t see it immediately, our message that we were serious and weren’t going away was sinking in, especially with career staff in the State Dept.

At this meeting on Friday, and in the meetings that have happened in New Orleans and Chicago, and are scheduled in NYC, Albuquerque, Dearborn, Birmingham, and San Francisco, we have finally begun to get what we’ve been asking for.  We have seen several meetings with senior governmental staff, not just in State, but in Justice, Education, Labor, Housing & Urban Development, Homeland Security, OMB, etc., where domestic government agencies have engaged in a dialogue based on the assumption that they do have human rights obligations, and that they may have to do something to address them.

I know that dialogue is just dialogue – it’s still a far way from policy change and even further from change on the ground.  And to date, many of the recommendations of these human rights bodies – for a stop to the demolitions of public housing, for one-for-one replacement of subsidized housing units, for a concrete plan and actions to remedy the disparate racial impact of homelessness on African Americans – have not happened, even under the Obama Administration.  But I do think this is the beginning of the conversation we’ve been asking for; at least now there are people in these agencies who will know what we’re talking about when we talk about their human rights obligations.

After a while of wondering if what we’re doing is making a difference, I’ve got hope again that we’re beginning to see a fundamental shift in the effectiveness of our advocacy as human rights advocates.  And that’s something worth celebrating even on a grey, snowy day.

-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director

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