Today was a day of ups and downs. Up: we had a great information sharing session this morning with some of the more experienced international activists helping some of the newer folks get a handle on the UN system. We then proceeded to divide up into working groups to work collectively to prepare answers for our briefing tomorrow morning with the Committee. This is so whatever questions we get asked, we will answer the question, but then bridge back to all the essential issues we want to be sure the Committee is paying attention to. This process is important for the actions with the Committee, but the silent benefits of working together, hearing each other, learning that we all have contributions that we can and should make to the joint effort is priceless.
Down: We learned today that the St. Bernard public housing development is being torn down as we speak. People’s belongings that they have never been able to get because the development has been blocked off since Katrina are being tossed out of the apartments in giant heaps. Families lives – photos, childhood drawings and letters, are being trashed and people’s homes are being destroyed. See pictures at: http://bluffton.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2008163&l=9f7bd&id=137901119 It makes the work we’re doing here all the more urgent and essential.
Up: we met with the UN staff who are dealing with the new Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the Human Rights Council. Under the UPR, every country in the world will be reviewed every 4 years for an entire span of human rights violations – civil, political, economic, social and cultural. The U.S. is first up for review in 2010, so we have plenty of time to prepare. We were told that the U.S. is supposed to engage in a “broad consultative process” to prepare their official report to the UN. I might not speak for everyone here, but I plan to make that happen – I’m envisioning regional and local testimonial panels, collection of stories of abuses, collection of success stories where rights are being protected, and the involvement of all levels and branches of government. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I think this is a great opportunity. One limitation – the entire U.S. report has to be only 20 pages, and the NGO commentary on that report is only 10. If we had trouble getting all our issues into under 700 pages for this report…well, let’s just say it will call for some new forms of creative activism…
Down: Some youth members of our delegation tried to go on a field trip today to the Alps, where they were going to take a gondola ride up the mountain. When they got there, they were told the gondola wasn’t working. As they left, they saw the cars going up and down the hill, and were told by others later that there was no problem. Coincidence that the gondola stopped running just when an all-minority group was visting, or evidence of problems of racism here in Switzerland on our trip to complain about racism in the U.S.?
Luckily the day ended on an up: We had a great meeting with some NGOs from Italy who are here for the review of that country before the CERD. Though many Americans may think that people have it better in Europe, the news the Italians shared was that basically all our problems are their problems too. Minority and migrant communities in Italy face discrimination in education, housing, healthcare, law enforcement and the judicial system. And Italy, like the U.S., lacks an independent human rights enforcement mechanism at the national level. But we were able to learn from each others advocacy – the Italians are experts at using many different international human rights processes beyond the treaty bodies in their advocacy, and have gotten some concrete victories from this broad strategy. And I shared with the Italians how how even though our laws protecting homeless youth might not be a perfect solution to the troubles Roma youth in Italy face, the rights based framework that gives homeless children a right to immediate school enrollment and transportation to a stable school situation is a model they could potentially learn from. There’s plenty of room for more mutual learning, and I’m sure we’ll keep in touch with our new friends.
That’s all for tonight, stay tuned for more…
Eric Tars is the Human Rights Staff Attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and a member of the USHRN CERD Advisory Task Force.