Bringing Human Rights Home
Center for Human Rights Education Equips Activists
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
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
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
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
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
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
Loretta Ross directs the Center for Human Rights Education.
For more information, contact CHRE, PO Box 311020, Atlanta, GA
RESIST - funding social change since 1967
259 Elm Street, Suite 201, Somerville, MA 02144
Human Rights, Justice, Reform