By Jackie Smith
In late April, community activists from around Georgia and from as far as Seattle and New York gathered in Atlanta to learn about the growing global “human rights cities” movement. Declining economic conditions in cities and communities around the world have fueled a trend where more and more people are organizing locally to defend and promote our “right to the city.”The United States has come late to this party, but a national movement is growing.
As market logic has come to dominate most local policy decisions, activists are finding that human rights-based organizing can be a powerful tool for defending people’s basic needs and building residents’ commitments to place and community.
Human rights advocate Malcolm X, pointed to an often overlooked international dimension to the U.S. “Civil Rights” movement: “When you expand the civil- rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can then take the case of the Black man in this country before the nations in the UN. You can take it before the General Assembly. You can take Uncle Sam before a world court. But the only level you can do it on is the level of human rights. Civil rights keeps you under his restrictions, under his jurisdiction. Civil rights keeps you in his pocket.”
The national human rights cities convening, hosted by the American Friends Service Committee and the US Human Rights Cities Alliance, focused on strategies for organizing “human rights cities and communities,” and provided participants with examples from other cities and tools for organizing. A major focus was the UPR Cities Project, which aims to mobilize local groups to document local human rights conditions as part of a United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States’ human rights record.
Testimony and analyses from cities and communities will be collected into a national civil society “shadow report” for international experts reviewing human rights practices. Officials will draw from such documentation in making recommendations to US officials to improve their compliance with international legal obligations.
But bringing international attention to the US human rights record is not the only aim of the UPR Cities project. The real goal is to build a human rights constituency—people who know their rights and are organized to defend these rights.
A UPR Cities organizing toolkit supports efforts to mobilize local residents and equip them with resources to shape local human rights practices. While national governments ratify treaties and participate in UN processes, it is ultimately local officials who make and enforce decisions that relate most directly to international human rights laws and standards.
Yet, many local officials are uninformed about international law. It’s up to organized communities, then, to be what National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) organizer Rob Robinson calls “human rights enforcers.”
There are three main steps to participating in the UPR Cities project, called the “3 Cs.” First, residents need to collect testimonies and documentation about local human rights conditions. These can be both affirmations of what cities are doing well and as illustrations of where improvements are needed.
Next, activists compile these stories into reports aimed at both the national shadow report that will go to the United Nations and become part of the official UPR review of the United States, and local reports that will inform local organizing and city/community officials.
Finally, the UPR Cities project calls for local efforts to “clamor” for human rights. It’s not enough to merely document what’s happening, it’s up to residents to demand that officials use human rights principles to guide local policy decisions.
Knowing there is international attention on local rights conditions may not move the Trump administration to act, but local mayors and other community leaders are more accountable to the people whose lives their decisions impact.
When we remind their leaders that “the whole world is watching”we can help keep human rights on the public agenda and work to shift the discourse locally away from an uncritical acceptance of market logics toward the recognition that our leaders must ensure that all residents—especially the most vulnerable—have what they need to live to their full human potential.
Pittsburgh’s Human Rights City Alliance is calling on groups around the region to participate in our own local human rights review process. Throughout the coming year, we’ll help support and host events to allow residents to voice concerns and to hold public officials accountable.
We’ll also help residents learn more about the Universal Periodic Review of the United States and how we can use international reports to facilitate local policy changes. A planning committee is being formed to identify priorities and organize spaces where residents can provide testimony for our local and national reports.
If your organization wants to help shape our local report, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook message (PGHRights). Or attend our next meeting, Saturday June 29 at the East Liberty public Library (10:15AM-12:00 noon).
For more information and to keep informed, see: www. pghrights.org.
Jackie Smith is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and co-coordinator of the Pittsburgh Human Rights City Alliance. She serves on the national steering committee of the US Human Rights Cities.