Human rights in the age of Obama

Originally published in YES! Magazine
by Tanya Dawkins
Ajamu Baraka is the executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of more than 250 human rights and social justice organizations working to hold the United States accountable to international human rights standards. YES! Magazine board member Tanya Dawkins talked to him about housing, direct action, and why human rights are relevant during the recession.

Tanya Dawkins: How are you feeling about the domestic human rights movement right now?

Ajamu Baraka: I’m feeling pretty good, even though we have some very real challenges as a movement. The election of Barack Obama provides opportunities as well as some very interesting political challenges. Under the Bush Administration, the targets of our advocacy, organizing, and education work were pretty clear. With Obama’s election and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, we find ourselves struggling against the tendency some might have to believe that we can relax and just engage in quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

But experience has taught us that it is still important for human rights defenders to push the envelope to make sure we are advancing our demands in a very clear, powerful, and coordinated way.

Before this crisis, issues around housing, jobs, and health care were framed as issues that only the market could address. The state’s role was to primarily facilitate market forces.

Now questions that speak to the proper role of the state are being raised. What is its role in ensuring that people have dignified lives? Does it have a responsibility ensure that people have a place to lay their heads, food to eat, access to health care, a clean environment, effective educational institutions?

So for the first time in 30 years, there is a real opportunity to push back on the ideological ascendancy of the Right, which has been pretty successful in convincing people of the superior efficiency of the private market system and that anything the state touches will be screwed up.

This is where the power of the human rights framework comes in. This framework provides clear values around issues of human dignity and justice that help people to understand both the proper role of the government and the proper limitations on a private market system.

Framing these issues not just in terms of policy choices, but in terms of fundamental human rights, puts a whole other level of demand on the table.

Tanya: Is the U.S. living up to its domestic human rights obligations?

Ajamu: The main issue that is impacting us all is the economic situation, including the government’s response to the meltdown. Across the country, many organizations have embraced the human rights framework, reframing the policy discussions and struggles in the context of human rights demands.

The crisis, for example, has had disproportional impacts on minority communities. Under the terms of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the state is required to formulate policies that specifically address these unfair impacts. But because those considerations weren’t part of the discussion around the stimulus package, the stimulus has not been as effective or equitable as it could have been.

Tanya: Speaking of CERD, last year, the U.S. Human Rights Network organized a major delegation to Geneva to present a Shadow Report responding to the official government report on U.S. compliance with these treaty obligations.

Ajamu: With the signing and ratification of a treaty, a country is obligated to submit certain periodic reports to the treaty body responsible for monitoring compliance. In the case of CERD, the US is required to submit reports every four years. As a part of this process, civil society, popular forces and other non-governmental organizations can submit what is known as a shadow report, reflecting their perspective on a government’s treaty compliance.

The US Human Rights Network coordinated with more than 400 organizations in the development of the CERD Shadow Report. The final 700-page report covered a wide variety of issues that the US government did not address in its response. We then organized a delegation of more than 120 activists, including a very strong contingent of young people, in order to have a physical presence at the hearing in Geneva. It was an amazing sight to see these young people, many of whom had never left the country before, doing serious human rights work at the UN.

The CERD Committee issued 34 Concluding Observations, which document the degree to which a government is in compliance with its treaty obligations and outline any steps that must be taken. Of these, five required action and response within 12 months—including the Western Shoshone land issue, racial profiling, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for child offenders, ongoing Katrina displacement, and the government’s failure to properly inform the public of the existence of the CERD treaty, which requires that all levels of government, including state and local, bring their laws and practices into compliance.

Tanya: A good bit of the CERD report dealt with housing. Who could have predicted that the housing issue would be front and center for so many people in the United States just a year later? How is this playing out in terms of building the domestic human rights movement?

Ajamu: In this country, adequate housing is not seen as a fundamental human right.  The worst housing crisis we’ve experienced in decades was not just the result of the mortgage meltdown, but also of the systematic elimination of affordable housing that took place in this country over the last three decades.

It’s more important than ever to put very concrete demands on the government to develop programs and to earmark resources for housing.

We are developing and supporting a new initiative called “Take Back the Land” to highlight the role of various banks whose predatory lending targeted minority communities—and that have failed to provide mortgage adjustments to allow people to stay in their homes.

The campaign will also highlight the systematic elimination of public housing. The most graphic example is what took place and is still taking place in New Orleans. In the midst of a housing crisis, there were thousands of people, scattered across the country, who wanted to return to New Orleans’ perfectly sound public housing. The government, instead, decided to raze some 5,000 units of public housing—violating international human rights standards that protect people displaced as a consequence of natural disasters or human-made disasters.

This campaign also suggests that, given the public bailout of banks, the homes that these banks are re-appropriating are not private property but are, in fact, houses to which the public has a right.

In May, during a 30-day campaign, the Take Back the Land Initiative is going to be putting people across the country back in their homes through direct actions. This is one of the ways that the campaign will operationalize the demand that the government re-direct adequate resources for affordable housing to poor, working people.

Tanya: We know that bringing this movement to scale requires engaging people who may be inspired by the possibilities but insecure about their capacity to have an impact or intimidated by the enormity of the task at hand. What would you say to someone like that?

Ajamu: I would ask them, do you believe in social justice? In democracy? In the possibility of individual, community, and societal transformation? If you do, you are a human rights defender.

We say that for everyone who believes in the possibility of real change, we can be that much more than what we have been.

Tanya: You speak of possibilities that many don’t dare imagine. When has the human rights framework led to substantive improvement in the lives of everyday citizens?

Ajamu: We need only look back into the history of this country. The struggle for abolition of slavery was a human rights struggle. The struggle for women to be recognized as equal human beings and workers’ struggles for a more dignified existence, including the demands for an 8-hour workday and protections against inhumane working conditions, were human rights struggles. Lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals and transgendered people’s fight for dignity and equality are all are part of the struggle for human rights and human dignity.

It is no accident that the repression in the 1960s in the South led to the Alabama Christian Human Rights Coalition and the Human Rights Appeal, or that the themes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention were around human rights.

The human rights movement has always been a part of the advancement of civil rights and democracy here in this country. We say, “from civil rights back to human rights” because it has always been about human rights.

Tanya: One of the key challenges of building the movement for human rights is helping people to connect the dots between the freedoms and rights they now enjoy, and may take for granted, and the movement for human rights. Given all of the challenges and opportunities of this moment, how does the Network do this work?

Ajamu: The coordinating office in Atlanta facilitates processes by which groups working on a range of human rights issues can come together in order to concentrate their power and advance their issues and campaigns. There are various ways we support the work, but we are guided by the principle that the people who are most impacted by human rights violations need to be at the center of the work. We believe that we can only realize human rights when there are links between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and that the only way we’ll advance collective human rights is through building social movements.

The human rights framework is an instrument that can help us all work together, recognizing that we’re not going to be able to advance any of our individual issues or concerns without a more critical look at some of the systemic elements that are impacting all of us.

Another central campaign we are supporting is the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, which includes the agenda we believe the Obama Administration needs to address. It includes the reestablishment of the Interagency Working Group, which will require that government agencies coordinate to ensure their practices are in line with the treaty obligations the U.S. has signed. We are also pushing for reinvigoration and expansion of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission—with a civil and human rights mandate, it could be the national institution that is needed to ensure that US practices at every level of government is in line with human rights values and obligations.

The Campaign is also calling on the Obama Administration to create a program of action to respond to U.S. lapses in implementing CERD, and to address issues of continued racial oppression in the United States.

There will be many challenges over the next few years as this economy continues to be transformed. This economy has already been earmarked to be a low wage economy, and the impact that will have on millions of people will be devastating.

We believe we have a real opportunity to advance demands for economic rights if we can show people that we have real opportunity for change at this point in history.

Tanya: How is today’s domestic human rights movement changing?

Ajamu: There is a popular conception of a human rights defender as a swashbuckling lawyer, steeped in international law and with privileged access to information and funding. But today’s struggle for human rights is not one that will be led by lawyers or advocates in Washington.

There has been a gradual shift to more democratic, grassroots, base-building approaches and organizations. People like Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Human Rights Campaign, Jaribu Hill, founder of Southern Human Rights Organizers, and grassroots community leaders across this country reflect the changing face of the domestic human rights movement.

This new human rights movement does not pretend to be impartial or apolitical. We recognize that the only way we can fully realize our human rights is as a consequence of a shift in power toward the poor and working class here in this country.

We recognize that those kinds of changes are not going to take place in the absence of struggle or in the absence of demands.

So we see this new human rights movement as a revolutionary movement that is advancing a new vision of society, one in which substantive equality is a possibility. Unequal access to power, resources, information, and leisure time are human contradictions that, though a real commitment to the dignity of humanity, we will one day see eliminated forever.

This is a struggle against oppression, but it is also a struggle for a new society and a new kind of world.


Tanya Dawkins interviewed Ajamu Baraka for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Tanya is executive director of the Global-Local Links Project, YES! Magazine board member, co-author of the 2009 U.S. Social Watch Report, Opportunity in Crisis: Navigating the Perfect Storm, and co-chair of the Social Watch Coordinating Committee.