Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to the crowds at Montgomery. Photo: Stephen Somerstein
Today we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights activist and champion of human rights, justice and equality. His powerful words continue to inspire, teach and shape individuals in the US and around the world.
1. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
2. “We want all of our rights, we want them here, and we want them now.”
In a recent speech to the American Society of International Law (ASIL) the legal advisor to the State Department, Harold Koh, stressed the “most important difference” between the Obama and the Bush administrations is their “approach and attitude toward international law.” Koh said this difference is illustrated by an emerging “Obama-Clinton Doctrine,” based on a commitment to four main principles: “principled engagement; diplomacy as a critical element of smart power; strategic multilateralism; and the notion that living our values makes us stronger and safer, by following rules of domestic and international law; and following universal standards, not double standards.”
The commitments to “principled engagement” and “living our values” are especially vital to advancing human rights. For years, U.S. leadership on the world stage has suffered because the U.S. seems to hold a double standard on human rights. Historically, notions of U.S. exceptionalism and selectively ignoring injustices and human rights violations at home and abroad have bred mistrust of U.S. leadership based on our incomplete commitment to universal human rights. The Obama administration, however, has committed to leading by example. According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this means “holding everyone to the same standard, including ourselves.”
In many areas, the administration’s actions have matched its rhetoric. Joining the United Nations Human Rights Council and signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have both sent the right message that President Obama is prepared to engage with the international community on new and more principled terms than previous administrations. The appointment of many officials who are self-defined human rights champions with careers both inside and outside the government promoting civil and human rights evinces a commitment to “a vision of common humanity, universal rights and rule of law.” Moreover, the willingness of this administration to work with members of civil society to align our human rights rhetoric with our human rights practices demonstrates a commitment to lead by example based on both “principled engagement” and “living our values.”
These efforts, however, are not enough. What we have yet to see are new bold steps that prioritize human rights at home. This administration has not adopted domestic policies designed to translate its rhetoric and commitments into reality. And although the administration has made positive statements about the indivisibility of rights and the importance of recognition of economic, social and cultural rights, there has been no concrete action to fully incorporate those principles into domestic policies. “Principled engagement” and “living our values” require nothing short of a complete reversal of the positions, policies and practices from which this administration has assiduously worked to distance itself. This is the type of change an Obama presidency promised. This is the hope on which many relied when casting their votes in the 2008 election.
A dramatic disconnect between principles and policies has hampered current U.S. health care reform efforts. This became obvious when candidate Obama declared health care to be a right and then proceeded to treat it as a commodity when negotiating with insurance companies a requirement for individuals to buy a commercial health insurance product.
Similarly, early on in the debate the president championed the principle of universality by promising some form of health coverage – if not necessarily health care – for 46 million uninsured people, only to lower the policy goal to 30 million American citizens in his speech before Congress, excluding many immigrants and low-income people. Since then, further policy provisions that restrict access to health coverage for immigrants – documented and undocumented – and reduce affordability for lower-income people have appeared in the health care bill adopted by the Senate Finance Committee. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST
Since July 8, Ilham Tohti, editor of the Web site Uighur Online and a professor at Central Nationalities University in Beijing, has been held incommunicado by Chinese authorities. He was interrogated after posting articles on the site and his personal blog about a clash between members of China’s majority ethnic Han group and Uighurs in Guangdong Province on June 26.
The Uighurs are a Muslim minority group in China most of whom live in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in northwestern China. For two decades now Chinese authoirities have been pursuing a campaign in the area against “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” in the process have diluting the Uighur population and severely restricting the civil and cultural rights of Uighurs. Ilham Tohti’s case is in no way isolated. Although authorities in XUAR set up a media center for foreign journalists in Urumqi during the recent violence, reporters have been prevented – by police, other security forces or even just people on the street – from reporting freely in the XUAR. One New York Times reporter described tour guides in Kashgar who refused to lead him around the city and translators who feared repercussions if they were to translate certain conversations. Clearly Chinese authorities fear what the people of Kashgar might say to journalists, but what’s even worse is that they’re causing residents in the XUAR to fear expressing their opinions.
All this repression suggests the unliklihood of an independent inquiry into the events last month in Xinjiang as well as open, fair trials for those who have been detained. Take action now for Ilham Tohti!
Until I attended law school, my strongest exposure to court rooms came from an old “L.A. Law” addiction. (If you don’t know what that is, do me a favor and don’t depress me by asking. Think “Boston Legal” for the 80s.) One of my girlfriends in grad school came from a family with a strong legal tradition and was a lot savvier than me when it came to actual courtroom experience. For years, her father argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and I listened with interest as she shared insider’s knowledge. Jennifer said that one of the hardest things to explain to her dad’s clients was that by the time the cases reached the Supreme Court, they were not about them. They had become cases about the law and the way the law is interpreted for everyone.
I’ve been thinking about that lesson this morning, as the California Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to Proposition 8. It’s been a hard thing to explain to the people of California – and the country- that Proposition 8 is not just a case about same-sex marriage. It’s a case about the rights of all minority populations in California.
If that doesn’t seem obvious, let me explain. The California Constitution, like all constitutions provides fundamental rights for those under its jurisdiction. Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that marriage was a fundamental right and must be extended to same-sex couples. When Californians voted for Proposition 8, they voted to take away a fundamental right of a minority group. The case is really about whether we can allow fundamental rights to be taken away from citizens by majority vote. Do the majority of voters have the power to take away constitutional rights from any group? The answer must be no. Otherwise, every minority group based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender, is vulnerable. Without the security of equal protection under the law, all minority groups are at risk of losing fundamental rights whenever the majority decides to take them away.