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2011 September - October

How a Human Rights Framework Can Help Turn the Tide in Public Housing Litigation

By Richard Wheelock & Sara Kase

Demolishing public housing units without replacing them violates the human right to housing of displaced residents. Threatened with displacement, Chicago public housing residents altered the dynamics of litigation against the housing authority and gained new allies and media interest when they raised the human right to housing in their complaint. Asserting their human rights enabled the residents to articulate their claims in universal, easily understood terms and helped lead to a successful resolution of their claims.

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Opening the Door to the Human Right to Housing

The Universal Periodic Review and Strategic Federal Advocacy for a Rights-Based Approach to Housing

By Eric Tars & Déodonné Bhattarai

Housing advocates used the 2010 Universal Periodic Review of the human rights record of the United States to advance housing as a human right in this country. Every four years the U.N. Human Rights Council reviews the human rights compliance of its member states. The Universal Periodic Review requires governments to self-report on their human rights obligations and consult with the public on their reports. The U.S. review allowed advocates to organize communities and educate the U.S. government on the human right to housing.

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Invoking International Human Rights Law in Litigation

A Maryland Judge’s Perspective

By Cathy Hollenberg Serrette

Judges have long considered international human rights law in their decision making, and the U.S. Supreme Court has relied on international law since the country’s founding. State-court judges have similarly considered international law and norms. Advocates representing low-income clients should not hesitate to use human rights arguments in appropriate cases; many judges will welcome thoughtful advocacy using this framework.

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Furthering the Fight to Make Clean Water a Right in California

By Phoebe Sarah Seaton, Kara Brodfuehrer & Megan Beaman

Clean drinking water is a human right under international law, and California law recognizes a similar right. Yet more than a million Californians, mostly in rural, agricultural areas, lack access to safe drinking water. Advocates and community groups are using a a variety of strategies, such as litigation and administrative advocacy, to enforce the right to safe water. A “human right to water” package of bills now before the state legislature is expected to enhance advocates’ capacity to enforce the right.

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The "Right to Live"

Civil Legal Services and Human Rights

By Wendy Pollack

The right to income support--called, in international human rights law, “social security”--is perhaps the most basic of human rights and is at the heart of advocacy on behalf of low-income clients. Founders of the movement for civil legal services for the poor, closely linked in its early days to the welfare rights movement that was vibrant then, strategized about achieving recognition of a “constitutional right to live.” After U.S. Supreme Court decisions cut short that effort, advocacy turned to the state level. As economic hardship deepens for clients, a human rights focus offers new tools for achieving a right to social security.

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Using the Universal Periodic Review to Advance Human Rights

What Happens in Geneva Must Not Stay in Geneva

By Sarah H. Paoletti

The Universal Periodic Review is an opportunity for legal services attorneys and community-based advocates to translate clients’ needs and experiences into concrete policy recommendations. Assessing clients’ experiences within the human rights framework in light, for example, of the right to dignity through work, advocates can avail of the periodic review to help advance human rights. Advocates should collectively identify the barriers to the realization of rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and propose solutions where domestic litigation strategies have proven insufficient.

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Claiming Our Role as Human Rights Lawyers

A Webinar Panel Discussion

By Martha F. Davis, Chandra Bhatnagar, Monique Harden, Cheryl Hystad & Sarah H. Paoletti

In a webinar panel discussion held in June 2011, attorneys from a broad array of organizations discussed how they use a human rights framework in representing clients and offered examples of the framework’s impact. Panelists from a Legal Services Corporation-funded program (Maryland Legal Aid), an environmental justice organization in rural Louisiana (Advocates for Environmental Human Rights), a law school clinic emphasizing workers’ human rights (University of Pennsylvania School of Law’s Transnational Legal Clinic), and a national advocacy organization (American Civil Liberties Union Human Rights Program) all find that human rights arguments, crafted carefully and used in appropriate cases, bolster their advocacy.

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Human Rights in State Courts

An Overview and Recommendations for Legal Advocacy

By The Opportunity Agenda

U.S. state courts are often more willing to entertain human rights arguments than their federal counterparts. Because of their comparative independence, state-court judges are more receptive to using international treaties and conventions as persuasive authority. Poverty lawyers who litigate in state courts should consider using international human rights instruments as interpretive guides for state constitutional and statutory rights; the results may be a pleasant surprise.

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The Human Right to Health Care in the United States

By Gillian MacNaughton

Across the United States there is a growing demand for national, state, and local governments to recognize and implement health care as a human right. While the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act offers the promise of expanded and affordable health insurance coverage, it falls short from a human rights perspective. Drawing on human rights principles derived from international law, several state and local initiatives serve as inspiring alternatives. They incorporate universally recognized human rights principles--universality, equality, transparency, participation, and accountability--into health care reforms.

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A Human Rights Framework to Empower Clients

The Australia Experience

By Hugh de Kretser, Jacqui Bell & Lucy Adams

American poverty lawyers are not alone in their struggle to incorporate human rights principles into their daily work. In Australia international  human rights arguments have historically been viewed with skepticism. Nevertheless, poverty lawyers there are using U.N. human rights mechanisms and adopting international human rights standards in their daily work. The examples from the Federation of Community Legal Centres and the Public Interest Law Clearing Housing can serve as models for American advocates looking for new ways to put human rights to work for their clients.

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Using Human Rights Mechanisms of the United Nations to Advance Economic Justice

By Risa E. Kaufman & JoAnn Kamuf Ward

Even though the United States has not ratified all of the international treaties that form the core of international human rights law, American poverty lawyers can still use the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations to work toward economic justice. By participating in treaty reviews and meeting with individuals or groups who are visiting through U.N. “Special Procedures” mechanisms, legal services lawyers can heighten awareness of their clients’ concerns both domestically and internationally, thus laying the groundwork for positive social and economic change.

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Advancing Human Rights and Justice for All

By Wade Henderson

Human rights and civil rights are intrinsically linked. The emphasis on civil rights--the twentieth-century movement to promote racial justice, rooted in the Cold War--proved shortsighted. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights recognized this in adding “human rights” to its name. In the face of growing poverty and inequality in the United States, the human rights perspective can help us expand our understanding of how to respond to poverty.

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Oklahoma’s Anti-Sharia and Other Antitransnational Law Proposals

A Backgrounder for Domestic Human Rights Advocates

By Martha F. Davis & Emily Abraham

Many state legislatures have recently considered limits on state court judges’ use of transnational law (foreign or international law). Several such efforts specifically targeted Sharia. Oklahoma voters took the most extreme action when they approved a constitutional amendment to ban state courts from even considering transnational law. These developments threaten judicial independence and may have strategic and ethical implications for human rights advocates.

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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Grassroots Corporate Campaigns for Workers’ Human Rights

By Katherine L. Caldwell

Although human rights obligations generally apply to governments, low-wage workers in the most exploited employment sectors are holding corporate actors as well to human rights standards. Workers’ advocacy tools range from the media to corporations’ own professed commitment to “social responsibility.” The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida reached agreement with large corporate purchasers of tomatoes to require growers’ adherence to a code of conduct toward workers; United Workers in Baltimore won a living wage at Camden Yards baseball stadium and continues human rights-based organizing among workers at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

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