Calling for Action: Mayors and Human Rights Agencies Seek Federal Support for Human Rights

National news outlets increasingly highlight gaps in human rights protections in the United States. Economic inequality, racial disparities in sentencing and lack of federal paid-parental-leave (which places working families in a precarious position), are in the headlines on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Voting rights -- one of the primary achievements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- have been significantly rolled back as a result of Shelby County vs. Holder.

Yet, in a number of areas, cities and states are stepping in to fill the gap, developing laws and policies that protect basic human rights. This is true in the case of paid sick leave, minimum wage, employment discrimination against those with criminal records and access to education through programs like universal pre-K. These efforts demonstrate recognition at the state and local level that improving the quality of life for all members of a community improves productivity and liveability.

At their annual June conference, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) prioritized addressing inequality and promoting human rights, building on past USCM commitments. Mayors De Blasio (NY) and Johnson (Sacramento) announced the Cities of Opportunity Task Force, focused on addressing inequality and declining opportunity and restoring "our fundamental values." The USCM also adopted a resolution calling for cities to join San Francisco and Los Angeles in efforts to implement principles from the international women's treaty (CEDAW) into local law, as a tool to examine policies to alleviate sex-based discrimination.

A number of current efforts to promote equality and economic opportunity invoke fundamental human rights principles implicitly and explicitly. The Cities for CEDAW initiative is one approach but additional examples abound.

Yet, there is a challenge in efforts to translate international human rights principles into domestic practice.

Engagement with international human rights principles and mechanisms, such as the United Nations, has historically fallen within the purview of the federal government, and more specifically, the State Department. As a result, state and local government officials in many jurisdictions lack familiarity with, or comprehensive knowledge of, existing U.S. commitments and obligations under human rights treaties and agreements.

This is changing but the process is a slow one. In addition to local embrace of human rights, the U.S. federal government is increasingly including city and state representatives in its delegations to the U.N., providing a space to share positive practices. The State Department is also engaging in outreach to state and local governments around reviews of U.S. treaty compliance.

But more is needed at the national level to show that human rights are a priority and to institutionalize rights based decision-making at all levels of government. Progress will require a more robust human rights infrastructure and specific education and training on human rights principles.

This week mayors and state and local human rights agencies from across the United States sent a joint letter to the federal government requesting greater guidance and support for human rights. Specifically, they are calling on the State Department and federal agencies to take a more inclusive approach to human rights. This includes regular dissemination of UN treaty body recommendations to the U.S., along with guidance on how they relate to state and local policy, as well as effective practices to comply with human rights standards. More regular and robust participation of state and local governments in treaty review processes is also a must.

By heeding this call, federal agencies and departments can make important strides in strengthening the partnerships and collaborations necessary to make human rights a reality in communities across the United States. Federal, state and local partnerships are a critical to how government functions and explicitly including human rights in these relationships can make them stronger and more effective.

In the next year, the U.S. will undergo reviews of compliance with two treaties ratified by the United States: the Race Convention (CERD) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT), and also participate in the Universal Periodic Review process at the U.N. Each review offers an opportunity to build the capacity of state and local actors to use human rights as a baseline to tackle the issues impacting local communities across the country. But the critical time comes after the reviews, when training, resources and support can help state and local governments translate human rights into meaningful change at the local level, putting words into action.