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April 01, 2015

The Effort to Bring Human Rights Home

by Tarah Demant

In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a landmark decision and found the United States responsible for human rights violations against Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) and her children. Lenahan v. United States, Case 12.626, Inter-Am. Comm’n H.R., Report No. 80/11 (2011). In 1999, Lenahan’s daughters were abducted and killed by her estranged husband after repeated refusal by the Castle Rock, Colorado, police department to enforce Lenahan’s domestic violence restraining order against the husband. The IACHR found that the United States had violated the human rights of Lenahan and her children by failing to ensure their protection from domestic violence. This was the first case brought against the United States to an international human rights body by a domestic violence survivor, and it followed years of legal pursuit by Lenahan to seek justice in the domestic courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Where U.S. legal mechanisms and frameworks had failed to bring meaningful justice or protection of the rights of Lenahan and her children, the IACHR ruling reaffirmed that, at its root, the case was a question of human rights, rights that the United States has an obligation to uphold.

Lenahan is a rarified example but one worth noting because it exemplifies a number of important points regarding the enjoyment of human rights in the United States: first, that human rights mechanisms and frameworks are meaningful at ensuring the enjoyment of rights on a local level; and second, that “private” matters—as domestic violence has long been categorized—are human rights concerns. This second issue seems especially important because it reminds us that our private, lived realities, the very places where we enjoy—or do not enjoy—our rights, are the very space where human rights matter most, which is to say that human rights are made meaningful at home.

Since 2011, numerous local jurisdictions have invoked the IACHR’s decision in Lenahan as a basis for declaring freedom from domestic violence as a human right. This case and subsequent evocations are part of a broader movement to “bring human rights home” and ensure that the United States is human rights compliant and, more to the point, that rights holders within the United States are enjoying the fullness of their rights.

Increasingly, advocates and government actors within the United States are looking to international human rights frameworks and principles to address “local” issues. This article outlines some of these efforts to bring human rights home and argues that such attempts are meaningful in realizing human rights and ensuring these rights across communities in the United States. While others have explored the limitations of the human rights framework in various national rights movements, see, e.g., Julie Mertus, The Rejection of Human Rights Framings: The Case of LGBT Advocacy in the US, 29 Hum. Rts. Q. 1036 (2007), this article argues that the human rights framework is a useful mechanism for ensuring that rights holders in the United States are given full and meaningful access to their rights.

Cities for CEDAW

Arguably, international human rights treaties and instruments are only as meaningful as their implementation. While having the mechanism to evaluate the state’s adherence—or non-adherence—to human rights standards is certainly useful, the goal of such standards is to foster a culture of human rights and prevent such failures from happening in the first place. The reality is that there exists a large gap between the rhetoric of human rights and the lived reality of rights holders. The United States’ engagement—and non-engagement—with UN treaties is demonstrative of this gap: consider racial profiling and discrimination in light of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the United States has signed and ratified and to which it considers itself accountable. What does it mean to have de jure human rights when one does not enjoy the de facto experience of these rights?

The reach of human rights standards is even more imperiled when we consider the treaties to which the United States is not a party, for example the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). We may rightly ask what it means to implement such human rights standards at home when the United States does not agree to hold itself to such standards. Here especially the move to bring human rights home is critical in ensuring that human rights are meaningful to rights holders whether or not the state recognizes the frameworks.

CEDAW, often called the “bill of rights” for women, is the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women’s rights within political, civil, cultural, economic, and social life. It was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly and was signed the following year by President Carter. But every year since, the United States’ Congress has failed to ratify the treaty, making the United States one of only six UN member states to have not ratified CEDAW (Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga are the others).

Within that gap, organizations and local governments in various U.S. cities have moved to pass CEDAW ordinances. First among these was San Francisco, which in 1998 passed a CEDAW ordinance into city and county governance and established the Department on the Status of Women. And now, the “Cities for CEDAW” campaign seeks to build on this strategy to defend and promote the rights of women and girls in communities across America.

The overarching goal of the campaign is to secure 100 cities to agree to become Cities for CEDAW. Certainly this campaign is meant to show growing national support for the treaty. But more important than becoming a City for CEDAW or adopting the treaty in name is the adoption of CEDAW principles as a framework for improving the status of women and girls. Cities for CEDAW promotes CEDAW-compliant ordinances that provide tools and leadership to empower local women’s organizations and local municipalities to effectively implement the women’s rights framework and build a culture of women’s rights, which is to say human rights, in their communities.

In San Francisco, implementation of the CEDAW ordinance has resulted in both symbolic and concrete victories: from new codes for domestic violence to city-trained emergency personnel in basic Chinese and Spanish to providing cell phone access in 170 different languages at crime scenes, the ordinance seeks to reduce and respond more effectively to domestic violence. The city also established a Violence against Women Prevention and Intervention Grants Program, which distributes anti-violence grants to community-based programs. Additionally, San Francisco instituted a Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, ensuring that working parents and caregivers have the right to request a flexible or predictable work schedule without fear of retaliation.

These measures represent tangible differences in the lives of women and girls in San Francisco. And, in direct response to adopting the CEDAW ordinance, the city has committed to meaningful gender analysis by the Gender Analysis of City Agencies that will examine government policies, programs, and services to ensure they are non-discriminatory and serve all communities of women and girls.

Using the human rights framework of CEDAW has allowed San Francisco to move from a rhetoric of women’s rights to a more concrete reality for rights holders. Cities for CEDAW seeks to replicate and build on such successes so that women and girls in communities across the nation are better able to realize their full human rights.

Law Clinics and Programs

Human rights lawyers and law professors in the United States have long been working, often case by case, to ensure human rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled here at home. A critical part of that work happens in law clinics and affiliated law school programs. The “bringing human rights home” projects of law clinics and programs are plentiful and diverse. They include using international human rights frameworks to “grade” the United States, raising awareness of human rights issues at home through blogs and media, and integrating the human rights frameworks into ongoing U.S. civil and criminal casework. The staff and students of law clinics and programs serve a critical need by helping to ensure that the human rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled at the local and national levels.

As one example, the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School (the Center), with a specific focus on ending violence against women and girls globally (including here in the United States), has teamed with the Global Gender Justice Clinic at Cornell Law (the Clinic) on the issue of sexual violence in the United States military. Sexual violence and rape in the United States military is perpetrated at alarmingly high rates, with one in three servicewomen experiencing sexual assault. The Department of Defense reports that tens of thousands of assaults are committed annually, yet only a small percentage are reported, and those that are reported end with low rates of trial cases and even fewer convictions. For the few survivors who do report an assault, as the Center and Clinic detail, the military justice system fails to adequately investigate, prosecute, or punish acts of sexual violence, and survivors are barred from any redress in federal courts.

In September 2014, the Center and Clinic, supported by domestic advocacy organizations, submitted two shadow reports to the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Committee against Torture detailing the human rights at stake in sexual assault and rape in the military. To complement these efforts, a delegation from the Center joined the U.S. civil society delegation in Geneva for the Committee against Torture review of the United States’ compliance with the Convention against Torture—where, notably, multiple other law clinics were present to advocate on a number of U.S. human rights issues relevant to the convention. The Center and Clinic continued their human rights advocacy for survivors of military sexual abuse at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States in March 2015.

As an additional advocacy strategy, the Clinic filed a petition before the IACHR on behalf of 27 servicemembers who were sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. military, detailing how survivors who had reported their assaults faced retaliation and lacked judicial remedies. Like the Lenahan case, this case has the potential to further confirm that issues “at home” in the United States are part of a larger framework and protection of human rights.

These types of human rights advocacy by law clinics and programs matter on multiple levels: first, they situate pressing rights concerns—here, the sexual assault of servicemembers in the military—in the context of human rights. Situating this as a human rights concern and building international pressure adds advocacy opportunities for survivors of such human rights violations and pushes for meaningful policy and legal reform to prevent such abuses. What’s more, these types of interventions have the potential to expand human rights understandings and protections, moving the UN and other international bodies to recognize and name these specific examples as human rights concerns.

The work of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and the Global Gender Justice Clinic at Cornell Law is a particularly good example of “bringing human rights home” because not only is such work pushing upward to international human rights bodies to assist in making human rights a reality throughout the United States, it also is leading legislative and community-based advocacy in its local community. The Center has joined with local advocates to push for the adoption of local resolutions to recognize freedom from domestic violence as a human right—and in November 2014, the Tompkins County legislature unanimously adopted such a resolution. Multiple cities, townships, and boards have followed suit.

The Role of Human Rights Monitoring at Home

One intentionally visible way in which we have seen the human rights framework surface domestically is the rise of human rights monitoring within the United States. The longstanding visibility of protest monitoring groups such as the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Legal Observer program has provided a necessary and beneficial service to communities and protestors—and ensuring respect for the right to peaceful protest and the right to remedy when protesters’ rights are abused is central to human rights. The elevation of human rights is explicitly stated as part of the NLG’s mission. While the right to protest and the role of NLG observers are often legitimately couched in terms of constitutional or civil rights, the project to ensure these rights is, at its core, a project to bring human rights home.

It is a project made more explicit in its human rights focus by the recent involvement of Amnesty International USA. In August 2014, Amnesty International USA deployed human rights observers in the United States for the first time to monitor the protests and police response in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed African-American man. In April 2015, Amnesty International again deployed human rights observers in the United States, this time to Baltimore, Maryland, to observe police and protester activity in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who died of spinal cord injuries while in police custody.

The presence of an international human rights organization serves to elevate the protests and police response as a human rights concern, and situating protests and protest observation explicitly within the framework of international human rights is useful on multiple fronts. Aligning grassroots advocacy and protests within a broader human rights framework provides a rhetoric that insists that the experience of “local” rights holders is part of a larger, international narrative of human rights and must be considered with the gravity by which we address human rights concerns internationally.

What’s more, the presence of human rights monitors signals to police that their actions will be evaluated according to international human rights standards, and the very presence of monitors may itself serve as a deterrent to rights violations. On Amnesty International’s most recent delegation to Baltimore, the presence of international human rights observers was noted on multiple occasions by police in communications to officers regarding appropriate conduct. Human rights observers also serve the purpose, of course, of documenting and reporting human rights abuses through firsthand testimony and observation so that rights holders have access to a remedy if and when such abuses are committed, and such reporting can be used to hold the state accountable to human rights standards.

The visible presence of human rights monitors inside the United States reminds us that human rights are not irrelevant to the United States, not something that “other” people have or do not have, but that they are at stake here at home and that the framework of human rights can and should be used to respect, protect, and fulfill these rights.

Human Rights Education

I want to end by briefly mentioning what is in some ways a less visible example of bringing human rights home but is an example critical to creating a culture of human rights: human rights education. Article 1 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training states that everyone “has the right to know, seek, and receive information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms and should have access to human rights education and training.” The UN and multiple international human rights organizations have continually noted that one of the consequences of not knowing one’s human rights can be that one is more vulnerable to rights abuses. Yet, there is no compulsory human rights education in the United States, and finding fully integrated human rights education in a U.S. school curriculum is difficult at best, meaning that students and, consequently, adults are often not fluent in their basic human rights. This makes the work of human rights educators and trainers particularly critical for ensuring Americans know and can enjoy their rights.

Human rights education projects seek to empower people, especially young people, to know and claim their rights. Such projects are geared toward empowering individuals; challenging and transforming attitudes, values, and behavior; raising consciousness and awareness; and nurturing an ongoing commitment to and passion for human rights. Many organizations and individuals see human rights education as critical to raising human rights awareness and to empowering people so that they not only better understand their rights but also are actively participating in the decisions that affect them and actively claiming their rights.

Human rights education serves a number of roles in bringing human rights home: it raises awareness, understanding, and acceptance of human rights standards and principles; it pursues the effective realization of all human rights and promotes tolerance, nondiscrimination, and equality; and it contributes to the prevention of human rights violations and abuses and to the combating and eradicating of all forms of discrimination, racism, stereotyping, and their underlying attitudes and prejudices. All these aims are in service of creating a culture of human rights in which everyone is aware of their own rights and responsibilities in respect of the rights of others, and it promotes the development of the individual as a responsible member of a free, peaceful, pluralistic, and inclusive society.

Individual teachers, trainers, community leaders, and activists bring human rights education into their communities and classrooms often with little or no institutional support. There are many modules and materials for human rights education developed by organizations large and small, and places like the Human Rights Resource Center at the University of Minnesota serve as a sort of clearing house for materials, while places like Human Rights Educators USA serve as a network for those who are, themselves, committed human rights educators. Such efforts seek to ensure that everyone is aware of and can claim their human rights and to create a culture where human rights are a reality at home.

All of the efforts that space allowed to note in this article join with the impressive work of countless others throughout the country to bring human rights home. This work has created spaces where the human rights framework is made more legible to U.S. audiences, and the rights guaranteed by this framework are enjoyed here at home.


Tarah Demant

Tarah Demant, Ph.D., is senior director of the Identity and Discrimination Unit at Amnesty International USA.