Posts Tagged ‘United Nations’

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Ambassador Nikki Haley’s decision last week to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council is remarkable. The United States is the first nation in the body’s 12-year history to voluntarily remove itself from membership in the council while serving as a member.

Some have alleged that the timing of Haley’s decision is conspicuous. “The move,” read the second paragraph of a CNN report on Haley’s decision, “came down one day after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights slammed the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border as ‘unconscionable.’”

It’s true the Trump administration has been threatening to leave the Council for much of the past year. And the condemnation of the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents on the border was perhaps the last straw.

However, in my view, at least as important was a report last month by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, on his mission to the United States late last year.*

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Alston’s critique of the economic situation in the United States could not be more pointed.

The United States is a land of stark contrasts. It is one of the world’s wealthiest societies, a global leader in many areas, and a land of unsurpassed technological and other forms of innovation. Its corporations are global trendsetters, its civil society is vibrant and sophisticated and its higher education system leads the world. But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live.

For example, more than 40 million Americans live in poverty, with 18.5 million in extreme poverty and more than 5 million in conditions of absolute poverty.

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Then,

The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries. . .The consequences of neglecting poverty and promoting inequality are clear. The United States has one of the highest poverty and inequality levels among the OECD countries. . .But in 2018 the United States had over 25 per cent of the world’s 2,208 billionaires. There is thus a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist.

According to data compiled by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman (pdf), between 1980 and 2014, the incomes of those at the top soared (the green bars in the chart above: 616 percent for the top 0.001 percent, 421 percent for the top 0.01 percent, 298 percent for the top 0.1 percent, and 194 percent for the top 1 percent), while the incomes of those in the bottom 90 percent barely rose (the rose-colored bars: 49 percent for the middle 40 percent and 21 percent for the bottom 50 percent).

Both trends—rising poverty and increasing inequality—have been going on for decades now. But, Alston is clear, the situation is only going to worsen under the current administration:

The new policies: (a) provide unprecedentedly high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and the largest corporations; (b) pay for these partly by reducing welfare benefits for the poor; (c) undertake a radical programme of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor; (d) seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance; (e) restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible; (f) dramatically increase spending on defence, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans’ benefits; (g) do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and (h) make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-Whites in poverty and near poverty.

What that means is a deterioration of human rights in the United States, because

International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to health care, a right to social protection for those in need and a right to an adequate standard of living.

In other words, according to international law, economic rights are human rights. More specifically, worker rights are human rights—and workers are the ones who are suffering from the growth in poverty and the obscene levels of inequality in the United States. Their rights have been violated for decades now, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and the prospect looking forward—under Donald Trump and his Republican allies—is even bleaker.

The solution begins with the recognition that economic rights, especially worker rights, are in fact human rights. And the only way to uphold those rights is to radically transform the existing economic institutions, to give workers the right to participate in making the decisions that affect their lives.

 

*As it turns out, the day after I wrote this post Haley attacked Alston’s report on U.S. poverty:

Haley, the former Republican governor of South Carolina, said she was “deeply disappointed” that the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, had “categorically misstated the progress the United States has made in addressing poverty … in [his] biased reporting”. She added that in her view that “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America.”

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Charles Wilbert White, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America” (1943)

Almost two centuries ago, European (especially French) elites were fearful of the democratic experiment taking place in North America. So, they dispatched Alexis de Toqueville (and Gustave de Beaumont) for a report, under the pretext of examining the U.S. penal system. The result was de Toqueville’s two-volume paean to the principle of equality and the “great democratic revolution [that] is going on among us.”

This year, the United States hosted another visitor, Maina Kiai, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. As Max Bearak [ht: ja] explains, Kiai’s trip “was spurred by growing concerns that despite a Constitution that guarantees broad inalienable rights, the world’s supposed beacon of freedom is often not living up to international standards of equality under law.”

At the end of his trip, Kiai also published his findings, which readers will see is a much more critical analysis of the current state of democracy in America.

Like de Toqueville, Kiai begins with some history:

The United States is an impressive, complex and imposing nation in which to undertake a mission such as this. It is an economic powerhouse, a military superpower, a global engine of technological development, and one of the oldest democracies in the world.

It is also an extremely diverse nation, a nation of indigenous peoples, slaves and immigrants. It is a nation of diverse opinions and views, sometimes so strongly held that it once slid into Civil War. And it is a nation of struggle and resilience, home of one of the 20th Century’s most inspiring moments encapsulated by the Civil Rights Movement.

The experiences with various forms of diversity and complexity have not always been smooth. The country was founded on land stolen from its indigenous Native Americans; its early economic strength was built on race-based slavery against people of African descent; and successive waves of immigrants have faced discrimination, harassment or worse.

Kiai then observes, “America seems to be at a moment where it is struggling to live up to its ideals on a number of important issues, the most critical being racial, social and economic inequality, which are often intertwined.” He is particularly concerned with an issue that de Toqueville himself thought was vital to the practice of American democracy: the freedom of association. “But it is impossible to discuss these rights,” Kiani notes, “without issues of racism pervading the discussions. Racism and the exclusion, persecution and marginalization that come with it, affect the enabling environment for the exercise of association and assembly rights.”

This issue is particularly grave in the African-American community, and understanding its context means looking back at 400 years of slavery. It also means looking at the emergence of the Jim Crow laws that destroyed the achievements of the Reconstruction Era, which emerged at the end of slavery in 1865, and enforced segregation and marginalized the African-American community to a life of misery, poverty and persecution.

It means looking at what happened after Jim Crow laws were dismantled, when old philosophies of exclusion and discrimination were reborn, cloaked in new and euphemistic terms. These may have not been race-based on their face, but they have, intentionally or not, disproportionately targeted African-Americans and other minorities.

The so-called “War on Drugs” is a perfect example. From it, one out of every 15 black men is in currently jail. One out of every 13 African-Americans, meanwhile, has lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction. An aggressive emphasis on street-level “law and order” (or “broken windows” approach) policing combined with wide police discretion means that African-Americans are subjected to systematic police harassment – and sometimes much worse – often for doing nothing more than walking down the street or gathering in a group. Convictions and incarcerations dramatically increased once the “War on Drugs” was set in motion, without a corresponding increase in drug use.

Similarly the crime laws passed under the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001), including the federal “three strikes” law, implemented aggressively against people of color have contributed to the huge rises in incarceration and exclusion of the black community further fueling discontent and anger.

The effects can often snowball: A minor criminal offense – or even an arrest without substantiated charges – can show up on a background check, making it difficult to find a job, secure a student loan or find a place to live. This marginalization in turn makes it more likely that a person will turn to crime, for lack of any other option, and the vicious cycle continues.

These discriminatory laws and practices need to be seen in the larger context. Wall Street bankers looted billions of dollars through crooked schemes, devastating the finances of millions of Americans and saddling taxpayers with a massive bailout bill. Yet during my mission I did not hear any suggestions of a “War on Wall Street theft.” Instead, criminal justice resources go towards enforcing a different type of law and order, targeting primarily African-Americans and other minorities.

There is justifiable and palpable anger in the black community over these injustices. It needs to be expressed. This is the context that gave birth to the non-violent Black Lives Matter protest movement and the context in which it must be understood.

In discussions with activists, it is clear that “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that other lives—green, purple, blue, white or other color—do not matter. The Black Lives Matter movement is simply a reaffirmation that black lives do in fact matter, in the face of a structure that systematically devalues and destroys them, stretching back hundreds of years. It is not about granting African-Americans special status or privilege. It is about a historically and continuously targeted community seeking to elevate itself to the same level that everyone else enjoys.

But, he explains, “racial inequality is not the only inequality inhibiting the enabling environment for association and assembly rights.”

 Although the United States engineered an admirable recovery following the financial crisis of 2007-08, this rising tide did not lift all boats. Productivity and economic output has grown, but the benefits of these have gone primarily to the wealthiest, as the wages of average people have stagnated. This has exacerbated the problem of inequality across all demographic groups, created more resentment, and more tension; providing more reasons for people to become politically engaged – including by exercising their assembly and association rights.

This inequality has been accelerated by declining union membership in a context of laws and practices which make it difficult for workers to organize, increasing corporate power, and a free market fundamentalist culture that actively discourages unionization. A dysfunctional, polarized Congress that has seemingly lost its tradition of compromise has made things worse.

In short, people have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment. And it is at times like these when robust promotion of assembly and association rights are needed most. These rights give people a peaceful avenue to speak out, engage in dialogue with their fellow citizens and authorities, air their grievances and hopefully settle them. They are also a key vehicle for public participation for marginalized groups whose ability to participate in democracy may be otherwise limited by dint of being felons or migrants.

Consider, then, the difference in perspective 185 years have created: The French aristocrat thought American democracy, whose only threat was a tyranny of the majority, promoted general equality among its citizens. Today, however, the U.N. official finds that growing inequality—racial, social, and economic—in America is undermining the practice of democracy, precisely when it is most required for the majority of its “angry and frustrated” citizens.

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