Globalizing the Local:
Activism to Promote Human Rights in the United States

By Margaret Huang, Director of the U.S. Program
Global Rights - Partners for Justice

In the United States today, human rights activists are working to eliminate abuses taking place within our borders, such as racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, unequal access to quality education or health care, and the exploitation of low-income or migrant workers. Simultaneously, activists around the world are engaging in comparable struggles to eliminate human rights violations in their countries. Collectively, there are hundreds of thousands of activists around the world advocating for the recognition and protection of human rights.

Since the post-World War II period, an international system of institutions and procedures has evolved to support efforts to put an end to human rights violations. Yet many U.S. activists and concerned citizens are not aware of this system and have not used the tools it offers to support their work. While it takes considerable effort to participate in the system, the benefits of doing so can be substantial. In situations where human rights abuses cross national borders, broadening the movement to combat such violations strengthens the work of activists everywhere and enables them to leverage additional resources and support. U.S. organizations can also learn lessons from other advocates who have tackled the same abuses in their countries. By meeting and working with these advocates, U.S. activists can seek to replicate their successful experiences and avoid efforts that have failed.

Another advantage of "going global" is that, by raising the awareness of the international community to the serious human rights problems in the United States, activist organizations can enlist political support from other influential actors and from countries allied with the U.S. government. Often, the external scrutiny of the international community on a particular human rights abuse in the U.S. can push the government to adopt legal reforms or policy changes more quickly.

Perhaps most importantly, the international human rights system offers protection of rights that are not recognized under domestic laws. The international human rights treaties expand the legal framework available to U.S. activists and present new venues for bringing forward cases or petitions. In particular, economic, social and cultural rights – such as the right to education and the right to an adequate standard of living – are not recognized under U.S. law. When U.S. activists look to the international arena, they can identify concrete obligations of the U.S. government to protect these rights, even if domestic laws have not yet recognized them.

What Is the International Human Rights System?

Fundamental human rights were first explicitly protected by an international agreement in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, Drafted under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and championed by the U.S. government, the UDHR outlines the full range of human rights, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The document guarantees each person's right to equal protection under the law, to freedom of movement, to marry and choose one's spouse, to freedom of opinion and religion, to equal pay for equal work, and to education and an adequate standard of living.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, several other international agreements and conventions have elaborated upon the obligations of governments to protect these rights. In particular, the United Nations has adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, along with several other agreements.

To ensure that the rights identified in the international agreements are protected and promoted by all countries, an international human rights system has developed, offering a diverse array of procedures to human rights activists. Composed of regional and global institutions and structures, the international human rights system includes mechanisms for monitoring human rights abuses, investigating claims of human rights violations, and sanctioning governments for violating their obligations. On rare occasions, the international community has even approved the use of force to stop gross violations of human rights, e.g., the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda and East Timor.

Although the international human rights system is complex, U.S activists can utilize the following key institutions and mechanisms to enhance their advocacy efforts.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the key staff person responsible for encouraging all member states of the United Nations to protect and promote human rights around the world. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides staffing and support to the different UN agencies and bodies that address human rights concerns, particularly the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and the international treaty-monitoring committees. The Office also provides technical assistance to governments on how to meet their human rights obligations and implements field operations in those countries where human rights abuses have raised particular concern.

United Nations Human Rights Bodies

The UN Commission on Human Rights, composed of 53 member states, meets annually to consider a range of human rights concerns and to make recommendations to governments regarding stopping abuses. The Commission is assisted in its work by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, which consists of 23 experts who undertake studies of particular human rights problems, a number of working groups, and a network of individual experts mandated to report on specific issues. Among these experts are the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, and the Special Rapporteur on Racism. Each of these individuals prepares an annual report on human rights abuses within her or his mandate, including specific cases from different countries around the world.

International Treaty Bodies

There are several United Nations human rights treaties that aim to provide increased protection to particularly vulnerable groups or against particularly gross violations. Today there are seven core human rights treaties, each of which is monitored by a committee or "treaty monitoring body." Each treaty body is composed of independent experts of recognized competence in the field who are elected by states that are party to the particular treaty. Countries that have ratified a particular treaty must submit regular reports to the relevant committee on their implementation of the treaty's obligations. Often, the treaty committees seek information from non-governmental organizations and human rights activists from each country as well as from the government, in order to consider a diversity of views.

Regional Human Rights Organizations

At the regional level, various governments have created institutions to protect and promote human rights. For example, the African Union offers different venues for addressing human rights concerns within the African continent. The Organization of American States established the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to provide redress to victims of human rights abuses. And the European Union has ratified several regional human rights treaties, under which human rights abuses can be addressed by the European Court of Justice or reviewed by the European Ombudsman.

The U.S. Government and the International Human Rights System

The U.S. government has accepted human rights obligations by ratifying several of the core human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The U.S. has also been a member state of the UN Commission on Human Rights for nearly every year of its existence. (The U.S. lost its seat on the Commission for the first time in 2002 but regained it in 2003.) The U.S. is an active member of the Organization of American States and has nominated experts to sit on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Most importantly, the U.S. has given credibility and legitimacy to the international human rights system by urging other governments to meet their obligations and by criticizing those governments who systematically abuse the rights of people within their borders.

Case Studies: U.S. Organizations Using the International Human Rights System

Many U.S. organizations have turned to the international human rights system to support their advocacy work domestically. The following examples demonstrate some of the advantages and opportunities offered by going global.

National Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty

Established in 1976, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) is the oldest and only national organization in the United States devoted to abolishing capital punishment. NCADP provides information, seeks to influence public policy, and mobilizes a public constituency to reject the use of the death penalty anywhere in the country. To accomplish its mission, NCADP integrated international human rights advocacy into its work starting in 1999. The organization started participating in the UN Commission on Human Rights and then became active in the preparations for the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, documenting the significant racial disparities that exist at both the state and federal levels of the U.S. criminal justice system. Also in 2001, NCADP participated in a briefing of the members of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which was reviewing the U.S. government's report on its implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). (The U.S. government ratified the ICERD in 1994.) NCADP has also actively lobbied the European Commission, where the U.S. government has an official observer status, to support its campaign and to intervene with the U.S. government.

The impact of NCADP's efforts can be seen in the growing international campaign to stop the death penalty in the United States. Today, NCADP has been joined by affiliates in countries as diverse as Botswana, Japan and France; some of these organizations are working specifically to stop the death penalty in the U.S. Many foreign government officials have also raised concerns about the U.S. practice of capital punishment, including representatives of Mexico, Germany and the European Union. NCADP credits international attention to the issue of the death penalty in the U.S. for stopping particular executions from taking place. Even some of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices have recently emphasized the importance of considering international law in U.S. jurisprudence. But the greatest success of international advocacy has been its influence on U.S. public opinion, which NCADP believes is the most important impact over the long term.

Brian Roberts, the Interim Executive Director of NCADP, and Jotaka Eaddy, who leads NCADP's international advocacy work, offer the following advice to other U.S. groups interested in working in the international human rights system: "The first thing is research, research, research," says Jotaka. "You have to be prepared and it helps to partner with an experienced organization." Brian adds, "It's worth the expense and difficulties of attending international meetings in order to be in a room with hundreds of government representatives who are willing to listen to you." Both activists encourage other groups to engage the international system, emphasizing that it may appear daunting at first but that you can reach many important people through the process.

Poor People's Economic Rights Campaign

The Poor People's Economic Rights Campaign is a national initiative led by poor and homeless women, men and children of all races to raise the issue of poverty as a human rights violation in the United States. Led by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), the Campaign has more than 35 organizational members, all representing poor and homeless people fighting to end poverty across the U.S. The Campaign was launched in June 1997 by the "March for Our Lives," which had representatives of poor families marching from Philadelphia to New York City to present a petition to the United Nations charging the U.S. government with violating the economic and social rights of the poor. Since the launch of the Campaign, members have actively engaged in several other activities to bring attention to the ongoing violations of economic and social rights faced by their communities.

In an interview on February 6, 2004, Cheri Honkala, founder of KWRU and national organizer of the Campaign, commented on why the organization focused its advocacy on the United Nations. "We had to go to the international community. The mainstream media offers little or no voice to poor and homeless families; we didn't have money for billboards or ads in newspapers or publications. We had to break our isolation and bring the attention of the international community to the poor in the U.S. We are starting from a serious disadvantage – not only are the poor suffering but we are invisible to the broader public. If a majority of Americans knew what was happening in their backyard, we would be able to put an end to homelessness and hunger. We need the international community to bring visibility to these issues."

The KWRU and Poor People's Economic Rights Campaign started their international work by taking a delegation of poor people from the United States to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. For the first time, poor and homeless Americans spoke for themselves before the international body, rather than having someone else describe their situation. After this effort, KWRU received inquiries from around the world along with many requests to speak out on these issues to other audiences.

On October 1, 1999, the Campaign along with several other individuals and organizations filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), charging the U.S. government with violating a variety of fundamental human rights including the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to social security. The petition specifically addresses the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 or "welfare reform" legislation, which has resulted in many harmful changes to the conditions of the poor across the United States. (A copy of the petition can be found at While the Campaign has not yet won a decision on its petition to the IACHR, it is exploring other avenues for increasing international pressure on the U.S. government in the area of economic and social rights.

Cheri Honkala credits the international advocacy of KWRU and the Campaign with mobilizing a new constituency in the United States demanding protection of economic and social rights for all. "To be poor is to be a criminal in the United States. Because other parts of the world still have social welfare systems [e.g. Europe, Canada], it is refreshing to our community to hear other people say 'you do have a right to health care!' We deserve these basic human rights, and we need the U.S. [government] to see that."

Today, the member organizations of the Poor People's Economic Rights Campaign are demanding that the government take action to protect the human rights of poor people. This terminology and approach has been empowering for the people participating in the campaign. Rather than see the issue as a question of charity for the poor, the members of the Campaign are talking about their right to an adequate standard of living – something recognized around the world and in international legal agreements – and the government's obligation to promote that right. As Cheri says to those U.S. groups interested in using the international human rights system, "Raise your expectations about what you want. It's hard to fight for human rights if you don't believe you deserve them. We have to reshape the debate – it is possible."

Challenges to Working at the International Level

Activists interested in participating in the international human rights system face certain hurdles. Significant obstacles may include demands on financial and staffing resources. To participate at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, for example, an activist must travel to Geneva, Switzerland, for the annual session that lasts six weeks. While few human rights activists can afford to stay throughout the entire session, even participating for one to two weeks can be quite expensive. It also takes time to learn how to maneuver within the UN system and how to lobby governments to support one's cause. Often, activists require training and may not be very effective the first time attending in the forum. In addition, the United Nations system and some regional organizations require official accreditation to participate in the institutional meetings. The accreditation process can be complicated and take a few years to complete, which discourages many smaller, grassroots organizations from applying.

Beyond these logistical problems are ideological and philosophical battles to be waged between those who promote a view of "U.S. exceptionalism" and those who believe in universal adherence to the same standards. "Exceptionalists" argue that the U.S. should not be held accountable to the same standards as the rest of the international community, that the U.S. should be able to pick and choose which international standards it will uphold. These proponents have dominated U.S. government decision-making over the last few years, particularly in policies related to the war on terrorism. (For example, the U.S. has defended its decision to detain accused terrorists without due process or other standard international legal protections.) Other human rights activists reject such policies and work towards fostering broader public demand for the protection of all human rights for all people.

Finally, another serious challenge is the slow pace of progress. While there are success stories of particular cases that have been resolved through international scrutiny or legal review, many of these examples took years to achieve, and there are many others still working their way through the process. The international community rarely acts quickly to address a problem, preferring instead to monitor a problem and encourage governments to initiate reforms themselves. But effective activists can find constructive ways to use international attention to raise the visibility of the problem and push for change at home.

Despite these challenges, more U.S. organizations and advocates are entering the international arena each year. There are programs offering training to U.S. activists on how to use the UN human rights system, and more donors are committing resources to supporting U.S. participation in the international forum. With all of these different forms of support, it is an excellent time for U.S. activists to explore the opportunities for integrating international human rights advocacy into their ongoing work.

For More Information

For more information on using the international human rights system, please contact Global Rights – Partners for Justice ( Our U.S. program offers information, technical assistance, training materials and other resources for U.S. groups eager to join the international human rights movement. Email us at or call us at 1-202-822-4600.

Other organizations to contact:

American Civil Liberties Union,

Amnesty International USA,

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights,

U.S. Human Rights Network,



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