If the US Wants to Lead on Human Rights, We Must Shift to the State and Local Level

With little fanfare, the Trump administration participated in a review of the United States’ human rights record on Nov. 9. In a rare moment of engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms, the administration agreed to talk about human rights, and to listen. During this Universal Periodic Review (UPR), U.N. member States suggested pathways to make progress on human rights in the United States — advancing racial equality, strengthening economic opportunity, and providing healthcare, among others. Many of the recommendations echo what is already being demanded, and are consistent with advocacy for the Green New Deal, and the Heroes Act. They also mirror the platforms of congressional Democratic newcomers, such as Rep.-elect Cori Bush (D-Mo.)

This global conversation is a vital reminder that racial justice, health, and a social safety net are not just political issues or policy choices, they are the foundation of human rights. Defending and promoting racial and gender equity, combating discrimination in all its forms, ensuring a dignified life for all of us, and remedying rights violations are government obligations.

During the review of the U.S. human rights record, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom joined a chorus of calls for the United States to take action at home to improve human rights: mitigate excessive force by police, establish a national moratorium on the use of the death penalty, uphold the rights of children, ensure universal access to healthcare and affordable housing, eliminate criminalization of poverty, eradicate violence against women, and establish a national human rights institution.

The gravity of global harms inflicted by the United States under a guise of “security” and “sovereign prerogatives” was also central during the UPR. Governments stressed the need for the United States to: adhere to human rights and humanitarian law through measures that include a retreat from military intervention, termination of financial and logistical support for operations that inflict harm abroad, and ensure accountability when international law is violated on foreign soil, particularly in the event of civilian casualties. The need for constructive U.S. engagement with international human rights bodies, and removal of sanctions related to the International Criminal Court (ICC) were also prominent themes.

Speaking on behalf of the United States were Representatives from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security (DHS), among others. Ambassador Andrew Bremberg, and Robert Destro of the State Department kicked off by noting U.S. support for the review process and welcoming constructive criticism. The façade that the United States was actually open to criticism, however, quickly fell away. DHS’ James McCament spoke of the threats posed by protestors seeking change across the country. He emphasized a need to clamp down on “violent anarchists, violent opportunists, and criminals.” McCament also denigrated pathways to asylum because they create “pull factors for illegal immigration.”

During the review, U.S. officials continually posited that existing federal, state, and local policies and institutions provide ample opportunity for Americans to air human rights grievances and emphasized that our democratic processes robustly protect human rights. These platitudes rang hollow for many in the room. In recent years, the parents of Michael Brown, the brother of George Floyd, and the brother of Rekia Boyd have all appealed to the U.N. as a result of justice denied in the wake of deaths of their loved ones. During the U.N. dialogue, while government representatives touted domestic institutions, the sitting U.S. president and secretary of state were actively (and baselessly) seeking to undermine the outcomes of a free and fair U.S. election.

Without irony, the United States sought to convey one key message to the world community: Our system works just fine. It was one of the Trump administration’s last-ditch efforts to defy reality.

The truth is that Americans struggle daily because civil, political, and economic and social rights remain out of reach. Mothers are fighting every day to feed their families and stay healthy while working multiple jobs because of low wages and inadequate healthcare. Parents have to protect their children from wanton, state-sanctioned violence because there is rampant refusal to engage in reform. COVID-19 and its much higher death toll within Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities have made structural racism impossible to ignore, as have months of protests across the country. To anyone actually paying attention, the past year has repeatedly exposed that, in its current form, U.S. democracy does not treat or see everyone equally. Human rights are honored in the breach.

For the past four years, the Trump administration has chosen to largely disregard how U.S. systems and institutions have failed, instead promoting a pollyannaish vision of American greatness. The November 9th human rights review offered a global gut check. Not surprisingly, the United States has a lot of work to do to live up to its human rights obligations.

A new presidential administration brings an opportunity for the United States to renew and strengthen a commitment to globally recognized human rights, and to put them into practice domestically. Ian Kysel recently delineated several ways the Biden-Harris White House can more adequately build human rights into federal decision-making. The incoming administration will need to act swiftly if human rights progress is a priority.

Thankfully, though, we don’t need to hold our breath. The federal government does not have a monopoly on human rights. State and local governments also play a critical role.

While human rights have not been central to the parlance of local governance in the United States historically, that landscape is shifting. Leading up to the U.N. review, 52 state and local leaders representing cities and towns in Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington state, and California took a step toward embracing human rights. These mayors and state representatives and agency leaders agreed that “it is imperative … to recommit to the international human rights framework.” They committed to promote inclusive democracy and protect and respect globally recognized rights.

Wide geographic support from local governments offers hope that stronger protections for human rights are not wholly out of reach in the United States. Yet, to turn that hope into change will require re-imagining how we make policy. At the center must be people, not profits, or politics.

This is actually not so new for some local governments. In 1998, a number of cities adopted a human rights treaty into local law in California, and since then, Miami-Dade, Florida; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; among others have followed suit, translating global ideas of gender equity into local practice. State and local commissions, mayors, and legislators can, and are, promoting the right to housing, designing participatory policymaking and budgeting. In California and Wisconsin, governments have recognized the right to housing. In Philadelphia and Buffalo, water affordability has been prioritized. Local governments, too, are committing to globally developed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Human rights city networks continue to develop in the United States and transnationally.

Proactive policies adopted by state and local leaders have helped to pave the way for greater access to economic opportunity and government transparency, but it is only the tip of the iceberg, and these initiatives are largely ad hoc. We do see growth in coordination around working toward racial equity, expanding participatory policy making, and enhancing “open data” laws. And there is increasing appetite for a living wage, which is one pathway toward improving social and economic equality. Scaling up and enhancing coordination and information sharing across local, state, and national boundaries are also critical for effective practices to have maximal impact on human rights.

U.S. human rights leadership will be defined by actions that catalyze change. Four steps the Biden-Harris Administration can spearhead to show that human rights matter at home are: (1) amplifying existing state and local government efforts to promote and protect human rights; (2) incentivizing local human rights policy innovations; (3) enhancing pathways for state and local governments to engage in global dialogues on human rights in the U.S.; and (4) investing in building the capacity of state and local governments and their networks to operationalize human rights principles.

The new administration should equip state and local governments with the tools and resources to improve human rights because state and local leaders have an obligation to uphold human rights, no matter who is in the White House.

Image: Jarraye Moore, 5, listens to speakers at a vigil for his second cousin, Kevin Peterson Jr., on December 6, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. Clark County Sheriffs deputies shot and killed Peterson in October, sparking Black Lives Matter vigils and counter protests by far-right groups. Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

JoAnn Kamuf Ward

Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute and Supervisor in the Human Rights Clinic. Follow her on Twitter (@JoAnnKWard).

Sarah Alshawish

MIA/MPA student at Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science; conducts research and outreach with the Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute’s Human Rights in the U.S. Project; served in the NYC Mayor's Office working on accountability and program evaluation; formerly engaged in medical research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.