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Beyond Civil Rights: A New Vision for Social Justice in the United States

Human Rights Dialogue 2.1 (Winter 1999) "Human Rights for All?"

December 5, 1999

In the United States today, the human rights framework is a new and powerful tool for broad-based social change. Many advocates are reshaping their programs in order to identify themselves as part of the global human rights movement and achieve their goals for social justice. Local community leaders around the country are engaging in a much-needed task: educating Americans on how human rights pertain to our daily lives.

Movements on the behalf of civil rights, the environment, women, and the disabled are beginning to use human rights language to describe their issues. Other social justice activists are doing work that could be described in the same terms, even though they have not explicitly invoked international human rights. At present all of our social movements in the United States tend to coexist as parallel, unconnected vehicles for social justice. But human rights constitute a unifying force and can change this.

Human rights are universal and indivisible. Everyone has precisely the same human rights, regardless of ability, race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, or class. Whether abuses are committed by armies, racists, politicians, domestic batterers, corporations, polluters, or street thugs, many community leaders in the United States believe that the cycle of violence can be broken by human rights education. The human rights approach promises to break down the barriers of identity-based politics because we are all human. Such a conceptualization allows multi-issue community organizing to move beyond civil and political rights and identity politics to a more comprehensive framework.

Civil rights, as just one component of human rights, are an appropriate mechanism for achieving legal equality. However, what African American civil rights leaders in this country have learned is that improving civil and political rights has not necessarily improved the livelihood of many people in this country; equality in and of itself does not ensure economic or social justice. Before joining the human rights movement, I spent a decade working to counter hate groups. It is very clear in this work what you are against: racism, fascism, homophobia, and so on. But you never quite get to describe what you believe in. It is not just tolerance, because in practice tolerance often amounts to delayed negation: it means that you will accept me until I do something that provokes your anger or hatred. Tolerance is not a vision of justice. For me, human rights as a conceptual framework works much better because it defines what we are fighting for as well as what we are against.

Given the promise of human rights, it is unfortunate that very few Americans actually know that we are entitled to them, and even fewer understand their meaning. According to a poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Associates in 1997, only 8 percent of the American public had heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the United States has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, turning those principles of the Universal Declaration into law, our government has stubbornly refused to ratify the accompanying Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In doing so, government officials have taken advantage of Americans’ poor understanding of human rights.

Americans have been conditioned by the corporate news media, international human rights organizations, and our government to associate human rights violations with political prisoners and the lack of freedoms in other countries. This portrayal often prevents us from seeing injustices in the United States as human rights violations. For example, it is arguably an internationally recognized rights violation to refuse to feed and house poor people; to coerce poor women to limit family size by threatening to withhold support for their children; to deny asylum to refugees; to treat immigrants as second-class citizens; or to allow obscenely profitable corporations to ravage our environment, avoid taxes, and callously displace our labor force.

While there are a good number of American human rights groups doing excellent work on the international stage, they only focus on the United States when it comes to domestic prison conditions and the death penalty. Moreover, few of these groups examine why people go to prison in the first place. If you do not address the need to alleviate poverty and oppressive social conditions, you will never solve the problem of crime in this country. You can never end people’s desire to survive, and many people will survive in what seems to them to be the only way possible: through prostitution, drug-running, street crime, and child labor. Almost two million people are in jail in the United States. While I hope these people are treated humanely while they are there, I am more interested in exploring what we can do to prevent them from going to jail in the first place, and a human rights framework can be effectively employed in this regard.

The essential human right is the right to know one’s human rights. By helping individuals and communities identify their own experiences within the framework of international human rights law, human rights education is an important new strategy. It presents a counterweight to the dehumanizing and dislocating aspects of economic and cultural globalization that have been devastating our communities. Human rights education teaches people in grassroots America to anchor local abuses in specific international human rights laws and thus empowers them with an effective framework for obtaining social justice.

As they learn about the possibilities of human rights, community leaders across the country who have long struggled for justice are eagerly engaging in program reorganization to embrace the human rights framework. In Atlanta, Sandra Robertson from the Georgia Citizen’s Coalition on Hunger is employing a human rights approach in the organization’s opposition to welfare reform. Jamala Rogers from the St. Louis Coalition for Human Rights is applying human rights to anti-poverty and prison programs. And Cheri Honkala from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia is engaging in a campaign for economic human rights. The appeal of human rights lies in their power to move beyond limited categories such as civil rights to a more universal and multifaceted conceptualization. This period of global reorganization presents social justice activists with a unique chance to promote an exciting vision for a new social justice movement, defined not by our multiple oppressions, but by our humanity.