Eugene will celebrate International Human Rights Day Dec. 10. Once again we will listen to city officials talk about how Eugene is (or aspires to be) a human rights city that follows the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the reality is quite different on the streets where around 2,000 people survive without shelter, (un)aware that they have human rights, treated as criminals by the city.
While the rights of the unhoused are unrecognized locally, national efforts taking their plight to international institutions of human rights and the court of world opinion have brought pressure upon the U.S. government to protect their human rights and earned the government a condemnation for “criminalization of the homeless” from two U.N. committees. This is significant since homeless people are discriminated against, murdered, beat-up and ignored in their own towns and cities, even in Eugene. The poor and unhoused confront deep prejudice in their communities, so deep it is not acknowledged even as it stirs both citizens and local governments to words and acts of hatred and aggression.
Human rights are usually talked about in the U.S. as pertaining to other countries. Often the concept is reduced to platitudes. Now U.S. citizens, especially those excluded from justice, are learning that they have human rights. They are organizing to avail themselves of these international human rights principles, organizations and laws in partnership with their advocates.
While the Universal Declaration is a statement of principles and common standards by which countries of the world are measured, the real work of the Declaration is carried on by U.N. committees and commissions charged with the oversight of the Human Rights Conventions and Covenants that came into force well after the 1948 Declaration. These bodies were created by the ongoing labors of civil society groups and diplomats throughout the world. Organizations like Amnesty International seek to strengthen the Declaration in their work of defending individuals and groups around the world from torture, genocide, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, arbitrary detentions and deprivations of basic needs and rights. Slow and steady progress and institutionalization of these human rights principles has been occurring over the decades through the establishment of the International Covenants and Courts.
The U.S. has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; The International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment by States; and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. All three oversight bodies of these agreements have strongly criticized or condemned the U.S. this year for violating the human rights of its people, mostly the poor and minorities.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee in March and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination condemned the U.S. for criminalization of the homeless. This means that Eugene and other cities are systematically violating the most basic rights of the homeless by not allowing them legal safe space to perform basic survival activities, such as sleeping, sitting, going to the bathroom, etc. while no public or private space is available for them to simply exist without the threat of arrest, imprisonment and/or fines. This population on the streets and camping outside consists of veterans, people with disabilities, elderly, youth, especially LGBT young people, and, generally, the poor. City staff and officials have been reluctantly allowing private organizations to organize, finance and administer three camps for less than 100 people, a small percentage of the estimated 2,000 people who can be found homeless on most any night in our area. The mayor often takes credit for the work of these community groups, using their work to deflect criticism of the city’s violation of the civil rights of the homeless population as a whole.
Sociologist Ken Neubeck, a member of the Eugene Human Rights Commission, in a post to Mayor Kitty Piercy’s Facebook page, wrote: Housing people who are homeless — men, women, and children — is critical to their well-being. But so is decriminalizing homelessness. Until we can adequately shelter or house those who are homeless, we should not be using law enforcement and the criminal code to penalize them for the necessary human behavior they engage in in public places, such as sleeping. It doesn’t make any sense to cite and fine, or arrest and jail people for sleeping in public space when they have no other space to sleep in.
Neubeck is supported in making this statement by the findings of the U.N. Human Rights Committees and U.S. national human rights groups. Also, the U.N. committee overseeing political and civil rights strongly reminds the federal government that it has treaty responsibilities to respect and comply with and urged the federal government to consider taking punitive financial measures against local governments, such as Eugene, that are not in compliance.
The National Law Center on Poverty and Homeless in Washington, D.C., was one of the U.S. civil society groups to document the widespread practice of criminalizing the homeless in the U.S. and submit their report to the U.N. Human Rights Committees. The goal is “to hold our government accountable to the standards it proclaims to the rest of the world and strategically advance human rights causes.” Local advocates are learning about these human rights laws and plugging into coordinated national efforts to strengthen the work on the streets within a framework of human rights uniting the community of Eugene, if not the city of Eugene, with thousands around the country who are learning to raise their voices together in defense of those marginalized from the rule of law and suffering the burden of economic and social disparity in the United States. The sad reality is that justice has become an empty word for poor people and people of color.
After the horrors of World War II, U.S. leaders, including Harry Truman and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, made the connection between violence and violation of people’s human rights. They gave us the foundations for human rights laws and institutions, hoping these laws and institutions would make war and violence in the future less likely. It is up to us to make them work in the current framework of a globalized and increasingly interconnected world and in the present moment when people are losing faith with the justice system in the U.S. — its police, prisons and courts and their political leaders.
It is in the interests of peoples whose human rights are being trampled upon and find themselves with an unresponsive, inefficient and/or corrupt judiciary and/or government to avail themselves of these international human rights institutions and treaties which provide additional support and take their situations to the court of world opinion as well. In the U.S. we have human rights as well as civil rights. We must educate ourselves about our rights and organize to defend them making common cause with others in our quest for justice and holding our governments accountable to respect our human rights for both the housed and unhoused. This is a global task that has no borders.
On another area of serious human rights abuses, last week, as people all over the country took to the streets to protest the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Missouri, which allowed the white policeman who shot an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown to go free, the U.N. Committee Against Torture released a report criticizing the U.S. for violation of the rights of people of color. The committee pointed out the systemic practice of police brutality in America and criticized the “excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, in particular against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups.” It argued that instances of police brutality should be investigated by entities that have “no institutional or hierarchical connection between the investigators and the alleged perpetrators,” the report recommends.
The weeks before the committee’s concluding observations were released, the parents of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, travelled to Geneva to speak with the U.N. Committee. Michael’s father told the press that “We need the world to know what’s going on in Ferguson and we need justice.” He also said, “We need answers and we need action. And we have to bring it to the United Nations so they can expose it to the rest of the world, what’s going on in the small town of Ferguson.”