Why You Should Care About Human Rights
Civil rights and human rights have always been intertwined. At the heart of the civil rights movement is the basic human dignity of all people and their right to live in freedom and with justice and equal opportunity.
In this global age, national borders are becoming ever more porous. The interdependency of the world's people is growing exponentially. Events in other parts of the world related to the economy, environment, workers rights, etc. affect all of us.
International human rights covenants can be used to push the U.S. Government to focus on issues not redressable under U.S. law, or to establish stronger remedies than are available under U.S. law. The U.S. ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1994, and under that agreement this country has a responsibility to remedy discrimination, both intentional and unintentional, that disproportionately affects minorities.
Thus, human rights may reach areas our civil rights cannot reach. Consider the following outlined in The Leadership Conference/The Education Fund report on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, "Justice on Trial":
- In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in employment. Yet today, three out of every ten African American males born in the United States will serve time in prison, a status that renders their prospects for legitimate employment bleak, and often bars them from obtaining professional licenses.
- In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Yet today, 31 percent of all black men in Alabama and Florida are permanently disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions. Nationally, 1.4 million black men have lost the right to vote under these laws.
- In 1965 Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which sought to eliminate the vestiges of racial discrimination in the nation's immigration laws. Yet today, Hispanic and Asian Americans are routinely and sometimes explicitly singled out for immigration enforcement.
- In 1968 Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. Yet today, the current housing for approximately 2 million Americans - two-thirds of them African American or Hispanic - is a prison or jail cell.
Our civil rights laws abolished Jim Crow laws and other vestiges of segregation, and guaranteed minority citizens the right to travel and utilize public accommodations freely. Yet today, racial profiling and police brutality make such travel hazardous to the dignity and health of law-abiding black and Hispanic citizens.
The racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance that confront nations around the world continue to blight the human condition and remain an obstacle in our struggle for justice, equal opportunity, and meaningful human development.
Many critical issues of racism and racial discrimination continue to face people all over the globe. These include issues disparate treatment in the criminal justice system; unequal education, health care and employment; the rise in hate crimes; and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The civil rights community has petitioned the United Nations for redress in the past - in 1947, the NAACP joined other U.S, civil rights groups in presenting one of the very first individual human rights appeals ever submitted to the United Nations.
At the same time, this avenue for advocacy has been historically underused by U.S. NGOs. Other nations regularly make use of the UN to highlight their domestic issues. In today's world, the use of international means for advocacy will become even more relevant.
Recently, three civil rights leaders - Julian Bond of the NAACP, Wade Henderson of The Leadership Conference, and Dr. Mary Frances Berry of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, presented a "Call to Action" to the United Nations in Geneva. This call highlighted the persistence of human rights violations in the U.S., notably in the form of race bias in the application of the criminal justice system. The document presented was signed by more than 45 civil rights leaders in the United States. Julian Bond formerly addressed the U.N. Sub Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. At the conclusion of the presentation, the Sub-Commission erupted in applause, in recognition of the import of the statement.
The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) presents another example of the use of international means for the protection of civil rights. CEDAW establishes a world-wide strategy for advancing equality between the sexes. Supporters of the women's treaty observe that it urges nations to remove barriers to equality in education, employment, and health care as well as legal and commercial relations. CEDAW will have no direct effect on the U.S. legal system, proponents say, because its provisions are consistent with current U.S. law and it is not "self-executing." But ratification will strengthen our solidarity with women around the world who are still struggling for their basic human rights.