On December 8-9, 2016, the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) will host its eleventh annual Human Rights Institute at Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL). This year’s Institute is entitled, “Global Justice Goes Local: The Emergence of Human Rights Cities.” The idea of bringing together academics, advocates and activists on the topic of local implementation of human rights was exciting to us when we agreed on this topic a year ago. The recent U.S. presidential election has made the topic even more timely than we originally anticipated.
Donald Trump built a political campaign around misinformation, insults, bluster, and a series of campaign promises. Many of these involve promises to violate the human rights of immigrants, women, Muslims, people of color, etc. etc. We are confident that Trump and his political allies will not be able to carry out this terrifying agenda, but if he is able to keep even a fraction of his promises, a parade of human rights violations foretold awaits us.
Much human rights advocacy focuses on the obligations of national governments to implement human rights. The ratification of international human rights treaties by national governments activates those obligations, and the Universal Periodic Review process rightly draws the attention of activists to national progress on meeting treaty obligations.
However, state and local governments also have human rights obligations under human rights law, and activists are increasingly organizing themselves to demand that sub-national governments take seriously those obligations. The global discussion of “the right to the city,” and the human rights cities movement are two important manifestations of this trend, as are cities for CEDAW, sanctuary cities, and the considerable amount of issue-based organizing at the local level (housing, education, health care, etc.) that is making use of the human rights framework.
Civil society engagement with the U.S. federal government around its human rights obligations will certainly continue during a Trump administration. But that national engagement will more likely take the form of denuncia, in the Latin American sense of a cultural rejection of a systematic policy of human rights violations, and a principled refusal to legitimize that policy through engagement with its architects. Engagement at the state and, especially, the local level will become more important and productive arenas of human rights implementation in the next period.
In this context, PHRGE’s 2016 Human Rights Institute becomes a perfect opportunity to analyze the relevance of the human rights framework to local social justice organizing. This two-day event will offer participants the chance to educate themselves about strategies to achieve local policies that advance human rights, and to engage in facilitated workshops designed to tackle real questions facing these efforts. Day One will consist of two informative panels, a reception to celebrate the release of, Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities, one of the first books attempting to gather and analyze the experience of human rights cities, and a major keynote on the potential of human rights cities by Martha Davis, a PHRGE Faculty Co-Director and Professor of Law at NUSL. After a plenary presentation by Shulamith Koenig of the People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning (PDHRE), Day Two will turn to two intensive workshops in which participants will work on specific questions likely to face local human rights in the next period.
As Barbara M. Oomen, another co-editor of the book we will celebrate at this year’s Institute put it:
The rise of human rights cities does not only hold the potential of strengthening social justice in cities worldwide at a time in which it is direly needed and cities are best placed to deliver it, but also holds considerable promise for the realization of international human rights at a time when these rights—although omnipresent— suffer from considerable critique.
The 2016 PHRGE Institute aims to contribute to the realization of this powerful dual potential. As always, the Institute will attract people who have been using the human rights framework to advance their social justice work, along with others who have not yet embraced human rights in the same way.
Day One of this year’s Institute is open to the public and all are encouraged to attend. Due to our limited capacity for the second day, we ask that interested participants express their interest in participating in Day Two and we will invite participants on a space available basis. Past Institutes organized in this way have proven to be excellent learning and networking opportunities. Join us for a conversation about how we must all move forward in this new and challenging time.
Kevin Murray is Executive Director of the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy at Northeastern University School of Law