Foreword-Realizing Domestic Social Justice Through International Human Rights


For most in the United States, discussion of international human rights law brings to mind situations such as Abu Ghraib, the use of child soldiers in Africa, or the practices of the Taliban with regard to women. These egregious civil and political rights violations, without doubt, demand immediate and forceful attention from the human rights community. But to limit our conception of human fights to a few specific violations that occur outside of our borders radically narrows the potential that human rights have for moving us towards a more equitable society within the United States, free of grave harms such as homelessness, hunger, illiteracy, unnecessary morbidity and mortality, sweatshops, and severe social exclusion. One of the greatest values of the international human rights legal framework is its recognition that civil, political, economic, social, and cultural fights are interdependent and must be respected and ensured as a unified whole. The role of economic and social fights is of particular importance in the United States, where these fights, at least at the national level, are virtually unrecognized. This set of rights, which includes housing, education, health, decent work, food, and social security, not only provide a necessary foundation for the exercise of many civil and political rights, and are of immense value in and of themselves to the majority of people, but are also critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy. Growing social inequities are currently threatening the social fabric within the United States and this nation’s identity as a “middle-class” country. The images of survivors struggling through the chaos left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake last year provided stark revelations about the state of race, class, and human rights in the United States. As the rest of the world saw this footage, a provocative secret was revealed: the income inequities and scarcity of resources experienced by poor countries are prevalent here, in the world’s richest and most powerful nation, branded as the champion of freedom. For those inundated with our pop culture exports and familiar with our wealthy national leaders, this was probably hard to believe, but there it was, in a form too glaring to ignore. An even more shocking blow to the U.S. public image was the fact that its poor people, denied their human right to live with security and dignity, were often criminalized and attacked for their desperation. As unaddressed need escalated to the point of catastrophe, government officials promised to show “zero tolerance” to those struggling to withstand the nightmare by following the law of survival and scavenging for sustenance.

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