Friday, October 20, 2017

The US Constitution and Human Rights

The United States has a complicated government structure consisting of a national Constitution and laws, state constitutions and laws, as well as county and city laws.    The United States Declaration of Independence states, “…. that endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  These unalienable rights can be interpreted as economic, social and cultural rights.  In looking at the different jurisdictions within the United States, some laws back up this statement and address economic, social and cultural rights ESCR. The United States Supreme Court is called upon to interpret these laws from these different jurisdictions within the context of the national Constitution.  Unfortunately, that interpretation of the US Constitution changes over time and at present is one of the central discourses today within the cultural wars of the United States.

Founding members of the United States Constitution believed that by setting up a division of powers in the government protected individual rights by preventing majorities to form and capture power to be used against minorities.  The Constitution alone contains few individual rights but later the Bill of Rights provided individual rights focusing on political and civil rights.  At the time of writing and ratification of the US Constitution there were no human rights as we know today.  Looking at the Bill of Rights several of the Amendments relate to the articles in the UDHR that pertain to political and civil rights and none that relate to articles 22 – 27 of the UDHR which pertain to (ESCR).  Other Amendments of the Constitution over time have strengthened human rights protection still focusing on political and civil rights and lacking in ESCR.

The US Constitution and how it relates to the UDHR can be linked to the United States participation in forming early United Nations human rights standards.  Eleanor Roosevelt as the Chair of the Committee that drafted the UDHR continued President Roosevelt’s legacy by promoting economic human rights as laid out in the President’s Economic Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, the United States support of economic rights policies did not transfer over into the Cold War era. The United States reluctance to accept ESCR during the Cold War came from the idea that these rights were communist doctrine and the United States being a capitalist free market system based policies on a government that protected political and civil rights but saw ESCR as entitlements.  

The United States reluctance to ratify UN treaties has to do with the obligations that goes along with ratifying the treaties because some of the policies in the United States during the early years and today such as discriminating against African Americans, and not passing a Women’s Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution would be in violation of UN treaties which would make the United States vulnerable in International Law.  Changing the Constitution is not an easy process, three fourths of the 50 states must ratify an amendment before it becomes law. In over 200 years there have only been 27 Constitutional Amendments.

The United States has a “National Constitution” and a United States Supreme Court; all 50 States have their own individual constitution, and their State Supreme Court; the state constitutions cannot conflict with the United States Constitution.  A recent campaign for marriage equality is a classic example how National and State Laws and Courts work.  Some States made same sex marriage legal, some made it illegal. This went on for years.  In 2014, 35 states had legalized same sex marriage, through state legislative law, state court case or local federal court case.  During this time the issue was moving through state and federal court systems.  In July 2014 alone five court decisions reversing the ban on same-sex marriage were in the works in different states and a couple on their way to US Supreme court. When working on an issue like this it can takes years until it runs through State supreme courts which needs to happen before it can be appealed to the US Supreme Court where the final decision is made after the five judges review the complaint in context of the US Supreme Court.  On June 26, 2015 the US Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage in all 50 states and US territories.  The LGBT community won a long battle for marriage equality on a national level.

The U.S. Supreme Court acts as a mechanism to insure the rights of the American people and in case decisions have identified fundamental rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, such as same sex marriage. Lower U.S. courts provide a mechanism for people whose constitutional rights have been violated to get a fair hearing and depending on the appeal the case can be resolved there.  The U.S. Congress also passes laws that protect constitutional rights and provide remedies for victims of human rights violations. The most important of these domestic laws are those that prohibit discrimination, including discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or disability. 

An example of a law passed by the United States Legislature outside of the Constitution and in line with International Human Rights doctrine is the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.  In 2016 a case came up in Flint, Michigan where there was a clean water crisis.  The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency that establishes minimum standards for state programs to protect underground sources of drinking water was sued in federal court.  The UN didn’t have a clean water policy until November 2002, when the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water.  Flint, Michigan’s water was contaminated in 2014 and was followed by law suits being filed citing violations to the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 the case decided in favor of Flint residence.  Because the United States has not ratified the ICESCR no human rights violation was pursued by NGOs or the United Nations in this case.

The US congress has limited flexibility to address ESCR including the right to health, education, public welfare and the right to collective bargaining. (2012 p.1) There is global trend for local governments to looking at international human rights laws and mechanisms when forming local policy.  This is not only happening in the United States, but also globally with organizations such as the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) that has members in two-thirds of the UN’s member states.  The City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) is an example of a local government entity using the values and concepts of Human Rights to make policy. (2012 p.1) Seattle’s RSJI has created opportunities for civic engagement and worked with local communities to identify problems and shape solutions.

The debate in the United States of whether ESCR policies in one of the biggest debated issues in the country today.  Americans are at risk of using universal health care, social security, or any new ESCR being enacted is hard to imagine.  But while this debate continues today within the cultural wars raging in the United States today, many in the advocacy community already recognize the role that human rights norms are playing in domestic law and policymaking in local jurisdictions within the United States that often address human rights topics including ESCR unique to the states and local jurisdictions.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Arriving in Acedemia

They want me to regurgitate in my own words the academic babble we have been listening to and reading back at them in the form of essays, critical annotated bibliographies, comments in class and in analyzing human rights violations within United Nations guidelines.  I can do that I have been part of grass roots human rights movements since 1971.  But let me tell you the anarchist in me will never surrender to the structured maze of human rights protection bureaucracy which in the long run may help in academia but everyday I look at this stuff wanting someone from the ivory tower to go out and do something from the heart an action, an act of generosity anything besides go around spouting intellectual concepts that take up time instead of taking action. 

My class mates are the inspiring part of this program.  It's the personal stories that are making the difference.

At a glance, we will be reading thousands and thousands of pages on academic works, writing more than 10,000 words just during this term.  I’m lucky English is my first language I can’t imagine doing this with English as my second or third language.
I am the oldest person by at least a decade maybe more.  Just not one of the gang.  Luckily we all have so much work we don’t have time for any socializing.  I have organized a gay film social event.  LBGT rights are mentioned almost every day country by country, community by community, human rights violation by human rights violation followed by what is being done or suppressed, it’s daunting.

Before I came I didn’t know why I wanted to be in this program, for more than two years I thought of coming here setting the stage exploring what human rights looks like in my home town by doing internships but I didn’t have a clear reason.  After on one week here I can tell you that at home I was bursting at the seams about the situation in my country but knew that problems were worst in other parts of the world.  Back home I did some writing for speeches for  Toastmasters not all on politics but enough so that my fellow toastmasters knew I had leftist politics and probably more left than they have but here in the master’s program so far I have written three thousand words worth of papers on different human rights issues, I get to research and explore situations like the LBGT human rights violations in Jamaica, the war crimes during the Bosnian war when after the war for the first time in history men were convicted of sexual violence during armed conflict, I get to read about how some in the international human rights community are proposing bringing cultural, gender and national diversity to the language and culture of the United Nations.  This is just the beginning of this amazing journey.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Hope Got Me Here

Me a graduate student?  It was so farfetched that I didn’t dream it.  But here I sit on the window seat of my student accommodations drinking my morning coffee and listening to the Birds in Salaya, Thailand the home of Mahidol University where I will be attending the graduate program in Human rights.

What I think about how I got here one word comes to mind “HOPE.”
I have struggled with hope most of my life.  Hope for a better life every day, and hope for a better world for all of us.

Wikipedia says that hope is an optimistic attitude of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one's life or the world at large.

After a google search I started thinking what is the difference between hope and faith because the google search on hope brings up all kinds of religious and faith quotes.

This difference between faith and hope is based on your acceptance of the outcome that you are having hope on or faith in.   Faith is accepting the outcome as the best even if it’s not the outcome you wanted; Hope is an action predicated on uncertainty with optimistic thoughts on the outcome.

One of my favorite quotes was by Taylor Swift “To me, “FEARLESS” is not the absence of fear. It’s not being completely unafraid. To me, FEARLESS is having fears. FEARLESS is having doubts. Lots of them. To me, FEARLESS is living in spite of those things that scare you to death…  It’s FEARLESS to have faith that someday things will change.”   The faith here for me is Hope.  My sister has called me fearless many times but I do have fear and I think I overcome that fear with hope. I am not a religious person and have a lot more hope than faith. 

When I think about this next journey of my life I am filled with hope.  Hope that there are so many people making this world a better place for everyone.  I would like to share four Personal stories of hope with you that happened on this journey called life.

I opened house to foster kids, teenage girls.  Shortly after a girl was placed in my home I started knitting a Christmas stocking for them with their name on it.  I didn’t realize at the time but that act of knitting gave hope to the girl that just arrived and to everyone in the household that that girl would be with us and a part of our family when the Christmas holiday came. 

Before I left for the Peace Corps I was nervous.  But I was consoled by my sister and my daughter when they each wrote letters to me as goodbye presents.  My sister, Zoe, gave me so much hope in her goodbye letter and my daughter, Lani, confirmed this in her letter to me writing, “I am so proud of you! You have grown and changed so much during my life time and I am very lucky to have you for my mother.”  Getting a vote of confidence like this from my daughter means the world to me.  In Mali every time I read these it gave me hope in the work I was doing and I got teary eyed.

In Mali my friend Koro always was hopeful.  Her and her husband live in a space that in 10X15 divided into two rooms, they have not running water, no electricity, and they struggled and work hard for their daily needs and have very few daily wants.  Koro always had a uplifting thing to say to me as she did her laundry by hand in a plastic tub just outside her front door.  She always greeted her neighbors made jokes and laughed.  She taught me hope has nothing to do with money, she taught me hope is about community, hope is about caring and when you care about others that caring comes back to you and fills you with hope.

The other day I was in the check-out line at Costco there was a Muslim woman in front of me, she had forgotten money and credit card.  As she walked away with her head down and Costco employees started rolling her cart away to put the food back the woman behind me asked the cashier how much was the bill and then offered to pay for it.  The woman ran after the woman walking away, caught up with her and after a short conversation they both started walking back, the cashier stopped the person rolling the cart away.  I took a deep breath and said out loud “I am start going to crying.”  I gave the women who was paying a big hug and told the other woman to have a good day.

I held my tears back until I got outside and put on my sun glasses, I cried all the way to my car and then some.  I wasn’t sad I was so full of hope in that moment.  It’s moments like this that make me think we can get over this national trend that has swept our country.

Think about hope in your life, ask yourself where do you get hope how do you spread that hope in your life, in your community and in the world.  Hope makes such a big difference in changing things for the better.