Where are our priorities in the fight for human rights?

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

Earlier this week a friend sent an apology with the John Lennon line, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” I understood. Most of us do this—create some list of what’s important only to have it co-opted by something else that presents itself as the next most important thing. Then, too, there are shifting motivations nudging and pulling at those same priorities. But are there some priorities that simply should not shift?

One could argue, particularly in a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the FDR Four Freedoms speech and at a time when Hawaii’s swollen budget will need to be cut down to affordability, that it would be wise to keep those four freedoms at the top of a government priority list.

Not that there’s a lot to argue about the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. Many of us believe Americans have them, but a quick inventory of the families on beaches, in streets and tent villages in Hawaii, and around the nation might well advance another opinion.

Joshua Cooper would agree. Cooper is the director of the Hawaii Institute for Human Rights and a lecturer in political science at University of Hawaii West Oahu. Last year, he was named coordinator for the United States Human Rights Network consisting of over 300 prominent human rights organizations and influential community associations nationwide. 

A small bit of background: Over the course of the Universal Periodic Review process, the Human Rights Council reviews the human rights records of all 192 U.N. member states. Each state has an opportunity to declare how it is fulfilling obligations to its citizens under international human rights law. Ironically, and contrary to what Cooper says many Americans believe about the U.S. position on human rights, that position has not been as robust as American lore would lead many of us to believe.

The Network produced a 400-page report assessing the human rights record, resulting in 228 recommendations to United Nations member states to improve its human rights status. At the end of March, Cooper led civil society advocacy efforts and community interaction at the adoption of the United States in the United Nations Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council. The United States’ financial meltdown and timid recovery of the past three years only appeared to intensify his and others’ vigilance about global human rights.

Some things just need to have critical eyes on them regardless.

Only last November did the Unites States endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The U.S. had been the final country not to have recognized indigenous rights,” says Cooper, “and that put the U.S. at the same point as the Convention on the Rights of the Child where the U.S. is the only country not to have ratified it.”

It will be a while until that Convention is ratified, but next on the list should be the Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities. As for the Convention on International Rights of Women, Cooper reports it has been steadily blocked by several countries, including the United States. Meanwhile, freedom from want and freedom from fear will remain elusive to many women around the globe.

Cooper is not shy about affixing blame. 

“Anytime there is anything related to the U.N., there is a group of Republicans who are very recalcitrant and very dedicated to making sure nothing is adopted,” Cooper says. “And they are hurting their constituents—people. When an international instrument is ratified, it only guarantees those rights to the people of the United States, so it has nothing to do with anything international except that there would be a body made up of experts who would review the U.S. record.”

For the United States to ratify a U.N. Convention, there needs to be a super majority in the Senate—67 votes. And in this case, blocks by the GOP are catching women and children in political quagmire.

In real terms, the latest Geneva meeting saw progress, in part due to the global unrest experienced during the past few months, allowing the United States to play a leading role as special rapporteur on the situation in Iran, a move that usually would be blocked.

According to Cooper, many countries that are involved in Geneva are usually present to protect their national interest. But the week before the March meeting was a special session on Libya, a member of the Council.

“Normally there wouldn’t be a special session on a country that was a member,” says Cooper. “There would be enough fellow countries who would block that, but that changed, and more significantly, the ambassador of Libya actually stepped aside and said he was working with the people and not the government. That was historic.”

Even so, the real question is whether what happens in Geneva makes any difference to most Americans wrapped up in the business of daily living. Certainly the outcome of the latest meeting is regarded as a victory by those who actively work on human rights issues and were strengthened in number and resolve. Cooper says that, too, was vital.

“The Universal Periodic Review united citizens of America to demand their rights and more importantly, to begin to mobilize to build a human rights movement in the U.S.,” Cooper says. “It’s beyond civil rights, but a human rights movement that recognizes the importance of economic, social, and cultural rights, the rights to housing and healthcare.”

As the civil rights movement was crucial in the 1960s and 1970s, Cooper sees the human rights movement as the next logical step and one that is happening around the world.

“It’s what should have happened in the U.S.,” Cooper says. “The U.S. is slower because of our structure of the 67 votes, but you can see citizens of America organizing around human rights, creating them. And in other countries around the world you can see it happen all the time.”

Maybe Americans should give those four freedoms as much attention.

Beth-Ann Kozlovich is the Talk Shows Executive Producer, co-host of The Conversation and host of Town Square at HPR. Reach her at [email protected].