Bringing Human Rights Home

Center for Human Rights Education Equips Activists with History

by Loretta Ross

RESIST newsletter, November 1998


While many social justice activists who "fight the right" understand the importance of opposing racial, sexual, gender and class oppression, they are often overwhelmed by the fact that proposals to end public education, demonize immigrants, outlaw abortion or abolish affirmative action have moved in 20 years from marginal far right causes into the political center.

Through time and repetition, the ideas of the far right are so widely integrated into our society that eventually many of the supporters of these ideas are neither white supremacists nor even particularly conservative. The combination of far right, religious right and ultraconservative forces creates a right-wing strategic alliance-the anti-human rights movement-that is joined by moderates, liberals and even, at times, progressives. For example, in some states wedge politics pit environmentalists against immigrant advocates.

The Center for Human Rights Education (CHRE) believes that the most effective way to counter the resurgence of the right, its collaboration with the neoliberals, and the cycle of inherited injustices in our society, is to learn about, and promote, the universal understanding of human rights, and their applicability here in the United States. An American public engaged in human rights education is inoculated against the fear campaigns of the extreme right.

CHRE is a national training and resource service center for social justice activists dedicated to understanding and promoting progressive social change in the U.S. based on shared learning specifically about human rights. Human rights education calls attention to the structural problems of our society, and creates the ideological framework essential for effective political education for social change.

Human Wrongs Versus Human Rights

Thanks to 50 years of global human rights activism, there is no need to re-invent the types of human rights Americans must learn and share. The rights spelled out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been divided by U.S. convention as including: 1) political and civil, and 2) economic, social and cultural.

The treatment of the poor is a top human rights priority because this most vividly tests the inclusiveness of our democracy and our desire to protect human rights. Although the U.S. government has signed and ratified some human rights treaties, it has ignored these commitments when developing domestic policies, betraying the essence of the Declaration of Human Rights.

For example, the federal welfare reform legislation that punishes poor people for their poverty would be a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States ratified in 1992, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Race Discrimination, which the U.S. ratified in 1994.

The U.S. has stubbornly refused to ratify the accompanying Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights. The international community has spoken loudly and clearly: every human being in every country has the human rights to live in dignity-free from fear, free from want, and free from poverty. We all have the human rights to live in neighborhoods that are safe, to have jobs that pay living wages, and to have decent schools for our children. We all have the right to a world of peace, free of the threat of nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. Governments-federal, state and local-are obligated to give priority to ensuring that these basic human rights are met. When they are not, we must not be silent.

For example, activists applying human rights education can create their own proposals for reforming welfare, based on meeting people's needs and eliminating the causes of poverty, while generating sustainable economic development. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union, with which CHRE has worked for more than two years, led a 125-mile march from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the United Nations in New York City. KWRU, an organization of poor and homeless women, men, and children, organized the march to "express our outrage at the inhuman conditions in which we are forced to live in the United States, the richest country in the world. These conditions violate our most basic human rights, as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." (KWRU Human Rights Report, June 1997)

The Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis developed human rights report cards which evaluate city leaders on their treatment of low-income and minority residents. These report cards are announced at monthly press briefings and forums as a way to embarrass city leaders into addressing the city's human rights problems. They are also a mechanism to evaluate candidates running for public office.

A United Human Rights Movement

This period of global reorganization presents social justice activists at the end of the twentieth century with a special opportunity to promote an exciting vision for a new social justice movement, not a movement defined by our multiple oppressions, but one determined by our humanity. We can define what we are fighting for as well as what we are against. We can use the human rights framework to articulate moral and spiritual values around which we must build a new society. We can engage diverse communities-even "angry white men"-in a learning process to develop and share a systemic analysis of ways human rights are relevant to their daily lives. Human rights education is the logical response to the fear and envy that perpetuate intolerance.

The building of a coordinated and effective human rights movement in the U.S. can only be accomplished through human rights education, because people cannot claim rights they don't know they have. Many religious, community and funding leaders simply do not understand the benefits offered by incorporating a human rights analysis.

Efforts to repel right-wing attacks are uncoordinated and less than maximally effective without a proactive social justice ideology and strategy-a human rights framework-with which to unite the social justice movements and advance our own vision for America. The human rights movement offers a well-thought out set of values which are, in fact, superior to the superficial "family values" touted by those who are actually opposed to human rights.

Human rights education is a values tool, a political tool, and a legal tool to motivate popular social movements centered on human rights agendas. Human rights education is a values tool because we can teach people to believe in a just society that guarantees freedom from hunger as well as freedom of speech. Human rights is also a political tool that can unite diverse communities in the social justice movement to implement these values in our public and private lives. And it can be a legal tool to enforce international treaties and standards in courts to challenge domestic and foreign policies that violate human rights.

The experiences of people struggling to define, assert, realize and safeguard their human rights will invigorate discourse on democracy and create greater public pressure on governments and corporations to be accountable for abuses and neglect. We can build a strong human rights culture within communities of faith, in the media, in progressive organizations, and in our conferences, meetings, and think tanks. The role of people of faith in acculturating human rights values in our society to counter the allied right is critical.

Each identity-based social justice organization is part of a larger movement for human rights-a human rights movement with many wings, so to speak, building on the legacy of the civil rights movement. Thus, the women's movement is redefining itself as the women's wing of the global human rights movement. In a sense, this particular shift was reflected by the theme of the NGO Forum on Women in Beijing in 1995, which proclaimed: "Women's Rights Are Human Rights."

Through CHRE trainings, welfare rights activists have defined themselves as part of the global movement against poverty and maldistribution of resources by also proclaiming that "Welfare Rights are Human Rights." And the list could, and must, go on with every movement for social justice perceiving itself as part of the larger, transnational human rights movement.

CHRE believes that the greatest threat to corporate greed and political impotence is from an educated populace that actively participates in defining its own democracy based on human rights values. People are already in resistance to their oppression without the language of human rights to describe their pain. We must offer people hope through human rights education. The intransigence of racism and xenophobia, the inequities between people and nations can be addressed through a human rights framework because human rights education moves our problems from the unsolvable to the possible.

Loretta Ross directs the Center for Human Rights Education. For more information, contact CHRE, PO Box 311020, Atlanta, GA 31131; 404/344-9629.

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