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Bringing Human Rights Home to Help People Who Need Help the Most

International Human Rights Day, which just passed, commemorates what is and celebrates what ought to be. In 2009, the “is— of human rights means they are routinely violated and their universality is often undermined. At the same time, the “ought— of human rights, as captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, means the promise of a world in which we all have rights because we are human and those we have entrusted to govern fully respect, protect and fulfill those rights.[IMGCAP(1)] The bittersweetness of the “is— and “ought— of the day is heightened by the significance of the date. This Dec. 10, President Barack Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, which, by all accounts, is intended to recognize his potential to bridge the gap between “is— and “ought—. Even the president recognizes the Nobel is not about his accomplishments but rather sees the potential in “a new era of engagement in which all nations must take responsibility for the world we seek.— This is a world “that gives life to our founding documents— and in which “all nations … confront the common challenges of the 21st century.—As we looked to Oslo on Human Rights Day this year, we could not lose sight of the particular significance of events in Norway for those whose human rights are violated here at home. If Obama is to realize the potential that the Nobel Peace Prize is intended to reward, he must go beyond addressing the obvious human rights issues and abuses that take place beyond our borders and work to make human rights real for those in the United States who lack access to affordable housing and health care, quality education and employment opportunities. This president and his administration must see the human rights abuses in the racial and wealth-based disparities that mark all indicators by which “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness— are measured.While the list of human rights issues that deserve attention is long, there are four immediate measures that this administration can champion as it begins the work of leading by example. First and foremost, Obama must issue an executive order to establish a new Interagency Working Group on Human Rights to coordinate the administration’s efforts to meet our domestic human rights obligations. Such a working group would go a long way to re-establish the U.S. as a leader in human rights, to recommit the country to respect for the rule of law and to ensure we abide by the same human rights treaties that we expect other countries to follow.Second, the administration must fully implement the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This would start to fulfill America’s twin promises of equal protection and due process. Until we can promote equality, fairness and dignity for all, the “is— of human rights will remain drastically different from the “ought.— Third, the president must support legislation to reform and transform the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights into a nonpartisan, independent U.S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights. What was once an esteemed commission responsible for major civil rights-era reform is now little more than a hollow body that has lost its credibility as the conscience of the country. Expanding the commission’s mandate will enhance its ability to address contemporary civil and human rights matters and restore the issues to the prominence that they deserve.Finally, Obama and Congress must institute reforms at the national level to create a better system of accountability around the U.S.’s domestic and international human rights obligations, central to which is coordinating and supporting state and local efforts. As a Nobel laureate, Obama has been recognized for a body of international work that has yet to be completed. These four recommendations can serve as a backbone for the new era of engagement and responsibility that makes human rights a matter of both foreign and domestic policy. It can help to change the terrain of domestic human rights from what is to what ought to be. Lisa A. Crooms is the chairwoman of the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda’s steering committee and a professor at Howard University School of Law.

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