Human Rights Activism Goes Local

Article excerpt

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Ken Neubeck For The Register-Guard

As schoolchildren, we were taught that all people are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We learned that it is a government's responsibility to secure these rights for those whose consent is needed to govern. The Declaration of Independence has inspired human rights advocates for generations.

The concept of inalienable human rights was later enshrined in one of the world's most historically important international agreements: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States played a major role in crafting this document, approved by United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The declaration identified basic human rights which nations - capitalist and socialist, affluent and impoverished - agreed were fundamental to human dignity. Social and economic rights were granted equal importance with civil and political rights.

Since 1948, many major human rights treaties have come into force, ratified by nations around the world (see www.ohchr.org/english/law/index.htm). Some provide for comprehensive protections of vulnerable populations, including women, people of color, children, people with disabilities, indigenous groups and migrant workers and their families.

Others require that governments take positive steps to realize the right of all people to work, adequate wages, fair working conditions, education, health care, food, clothing, shelter, social security and an adequate standard of living. When governments ensure such human rights, people's quality of life is improved and their opportunities to develop the full range of their capabilities are enhanced.

While the United States regularly condemns human rights violations elsewhere, in recent years its own human rights record has been subject to criticism. For example, critics have raised alleged U.S. human rights abuses abroad in connection with the war on terror.

Critics have also begun focusing on the U.S. government's domestic human rights record. How, they ask, can the U.S. call upon other nations to support the social and economic human rights contained in the universal declaration (as President Bush did in a Sept. 25 speech at the United Nations), while providing so little support for these rights at home?

Why, in the United States, are poverty, hunger, homelessness, discrimination, lack of access to health care, educational inequalities, unemployment and jobs that fail to pay a living wage not defined and treated as important human rights problems that government at all levels must act to eliminate? …