Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund Restoring the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) was created in 1957 to recommend clear pathways to protect and enhance civil rights in this country. The Commission was a major part of the effort that passed important civil rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. At the time of the Commission's creation, the rights that we were fighting for were framed by many as human rights, as well as civil rights. Many in the early movement saw the African American rights struggle as part of a global movement, with early champions going to the United Nations for an airing of grievances as they worked to use these new international instruments to put pressure on the U.S. government to do the right thing at home. Over the years, through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the definition of civil rights has become more limited. Many see it today as only describing the rights currently spelled out in national legislation and not including rights promised in our Constitution that are more fundamental and universal.
At the same time, human rights continues, (as in the early days of the creation of the Commission), to add weight and support to domestic civil rights issues. We are now at a key juncture in which we should commit to restructuring the USCCR. Economic globalization and technological advances increased the potential of sharing of information among civil society groups seeking to protect the rights of marginalized communities in their countries.
In 2008, LCCREF in consultation with other civil rights organizations undertook a review and examination of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to determine if it was possible to restore credibility and independence to the Commission so it could once again serve as the nation's conscience on civil rights. The report, Restoring the Conscience of the Nation, concludes that somewhere along the way, the Commission lost its way and had become a political voice, not an independent one. But while the Commission's standing and voice have changed, our need has not. America still needs an independent civil rights Commission.
The report includes a set of recommendations that provide a plan for restructuring that will focus the Commission on identifying, elevating, and communicating about important issues of race, gender, national origin, class, disability, age, sexual orientation, and religion that still have so much currency in our society, while ensuring that civil rights policy is not made in a fact-free world. One of the recommendations calls for the Commission to be named the United States Commission on Civil and Human Rights.
"Human rights are civil rights. And international treaties to which the U.S. is a party, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, apply fully in our domestic life. Changing the Commission's name to reflect the human rights dimension of its work would make more explicit its obligation to examine U.S. compliance with these international treaties as part of its existing mandate to examine compliance with legal obligations that impact civil rights. "
Our goal is to ensure that civil and human rights concerns are built into the baseline of what the government does. On International Human Rights Day last December, President Obama declared that we must "[l]ive by the ideals we promote to the world." An important step in our doing that is to establish a reinvigorated Civil and Human Rights Commission that can identify, examine, and elevate civil and human rights issues for our government and for all of us.
LCCREF has undertaken a project that included a further delineation of the human rights mandate for a restructured Commission, an examination of how the new Commission would work with existing state and local human rights commissions, and a review of the effectiveness of human rights commissions at home and in other countries.
Activities to date:
- Conducted initial outreach to civil and human rights groups, both within the LCCR Coalition, primarily through the LCCR Committee which focuses on restructuring the USCCR, and outside of the Coalition. This includes the members in the Human Rights Network, academics and other human and civil rights NGOs.
- Conducted outreach and education to members of Congress and other Hill staffers – this includes one-on-one meetings with several Congressmen and two White House briefings, as well as ongoing dialogue with some members of the existing USCCR.
- Provided LCCREF's finished report, and gave analysis of the findings and recommendations of the report to the larger human and civil rights community and Members of Congress.
- Created draft model language for statute to transform the US Commission on Civil Rights to include human rights – this language was disseminated in our outreach to policymakers and the civil and human rights community, including those outside of the LCCR coalition.
- Created a draft advocacy plan that has been shared with the LCCR Committee on restructuring the USCCR.
- Laid foundation, in our short-term outreach, for our longer-term outreach to policy makers and others in the human and civil rights community. By now having established relations with the larger civil and human rights community, we have built consensus for our goal, to improve the effectiveness of the USCCR and to include a human rights perspective in its mandate, and have created an informal network that includes other human and civil rights organizations, in which we can exchange analysis and information.
- Paved the way for further dialogue and the creation of long-term communications strategy to Members of Congress and other policymakers through our immediate outreach to policy makers.