Everyday people: Hawaii Institute for Human Rights director localizes a global process to civility

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—While many of us are trying to survive a recession that’s supposed to be over, a grassroots community organizer and university lecturer is coordinating the United States delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The Council will meet again in March to finalize its report and Joshua Cooper continues to gather input from across America.

Cooper is the director of the Hawaii Institute for Human Rights and a political science lecturer at University of Hawaii West Oahu. He was named coordinator of the U.S. delegation through the Georgia-based U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN) and spent 18 months crisscrossing America to bring together average citizens’ perspectives for the United Nations Universal Periodic Review held last November. With all the lip-service to supporting the “greater good,” Cooper is a little surprised that Hawaii news agencies in particular failed to take notice. 

“I’m big in Japan, Mongolia, and Germany,” he laughs.” Maybe if I had Angelina Jolie or a democracy dessert, I could go on the morning shows. But you don’t do this kind of work to get media attention. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Perhaps his comment points to that old adage about not being able to be a prophet in one’s own land, particularly if that land happens to be Hawaii where vestiges of inferiority still breathe—and despite the fact that Honolulu will be the site of next year’s APEC meeting. Or maybe it’s just that news editors may still have a preference for bad news over good.

Whatever the reason, USHRN didn’t have a media litmus test. The group of over 300 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that assesses and reports on the U.S. human rights record just liked the duality of his work: the grassroots advocacy plus his global focus as the director of training at the international center for teaching peace in Geneva. 

Cooper was also present at the U.N. when it created the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2005. The UPR process considers the human rights records of all 192 U.N member states and provides an opportunity for members to articulate their obligations to their citizens under international human rights law, and how they are fulfilling them. The bilateral relationship among the member countries means those who question others’ records can follow up at any time. The process is reviewed every two years to see how many recommendations have been implemented. The basis of the questions and recommendations from the November meeting came from the campaigns within U.S. communities coordinated by Cooper and USHRN.

Fifty percent of the U.N. report was derived from U.S. input to create 228 recommendations at the November UPR plus a bonus—the 33 U.S. departments and agencies who attended found out about each other and who to talk to. Cooper says he’d like to see the tracking of U.N. agencies, including the recommendations from each country, under a central roof in a national human rights institution. 

“There are connections between committees and issues, and they need to be integrated. Human rights gives a problem and prescription. It takes a global process and localizes it.”

We sometimes do that in Hawaii: The U.N. declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples was adopted in Hawaii five years before the rest of the world. The effort was largely championed by Cooper and his students.

The goal is to create best practices that can be modeled around the world so people can hold their governments accountable.

The focus, he says, must remain on the impact of civil society, a term chosen by the U.N. simply meaning “we the people,” as Americans and global citizens. Civil society is “everyday people doing extraordinary things to make the world a better place.” The goal is to create best practices that can be modeled around the world so people can hold their governments accountable.

The singular criticism is that accountability may not have enforceable teeth. But Cooper sees the problem and the progress.

“These [U.N. instruments] are just paper, but these papers are tools,” Cooper says. He also regards the process as progress. “Once, the Commission on Human Rights met annually for six weeks. Now we have the Human Rights Council meeting three times per year—in June, September, and March. And a mechanism, the UPR, that meets three times a year so that’s double the amount of time for people to participate, and to hold government accountable at every level.”

Pressuring governments to comply with U.N. instruments first means knowing they exist and how to use them. That’s why, he says, citizen input is crucial to viewing issues through the lens of human rights, creating common strategies and building global stakeholdership. In short, it means moving from rhetoric to reality. 

To make it easier, Cooper helps people get outside the legalese, understand the political process, and engage it to work for them.

“Most people are just trying to pay their bills on a daily basis and survive,” Cooper says. “They don’t have time to learn about acronym soup. They’re just trying to have some alphabet soup.”

Making it simple and personal are also reasons behind the USHRN’s Testify! Project. Anyone can make a two minute video to talk about a major human rights issue in their community and make recommendations on how to change. Additionally, USHRN used the videos to hold a contest to select a representative to speak directly with Human Rights Council in Geneva. (Florida farm workers won.)

Cooper is clear that not all the focus should be on what happens in Geneva. Town Hall gatherings and listening tours to hear local human rights issues are already happening in several countries.

Especially for Americans, Cooper issues a caution: “There is one instrument called the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Everybody thinks the U.S. is the leader and is this beacon of liberty around the world. We’re the only country in the world besides Somalia that hasn’t ratified this international instrument.”

It’s not so much about getting people to care in the abstract, but finding the political will to see translate the caring into action. As for the argument that most people are too busy coping with financially shattered lives or just treading water until they feel the effects of a recovered economy, Cooper isn’t buying any of it. 

“With all crises, if, at the center, we use the human rights approach, that would be a new way to measure, a new direction for policy making, to tell us what we prioritize as a people,” Cooper says. “Maybe we should regard the UPR recommendations as our global new year’s resolutions.”

The entire interview with Joshua Cooper is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. If you have an idea for a Town Square discussion, reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]