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California, Human Rights and the UN

On August 9, the California Assembly took the historic step of becoming the first state to agree to publicize the text of three ratified U.N. human rights treaties, and to submit the required reports to the State Department for consideration by the U.N. treaty committees. The State Assembly voted to pass ACR129, the Human Rights Reporting legislation, by a vote of 52 to 11, with 16 abstentions. The legislation will now move to the state Senate.

The International Convention on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination requires the United States to publicize the text at the federal, state and local levels, and to make periodic reports to the U.N. Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination every two years on complaints of racial discrimination in every aspect of life, and on progress in eliminating such discrimination.

The U.S. ratified this treaty in 1994 and has issued some of the required reports, but has never publicized the text nor has it sought, or included, information from each state, as required. Now the California Assembly has voted to publicize and make the required reports.

The International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading or Treatment was ratified by the United States in 1994. It requires reporting every four years on misconduct and proper conduct by police, prison guards, human services agents, and everyone in government, and what steps the government is taking to correct reported problems.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires reports to the U.N. Human Rights Committee every five years on violations and enforcement of freedom of assembly, labor union rights, rights of children, immigrants, and LGBT.  When the Senate passes this Assembly Concurrent Resolution 129, California agencies will collect the information they already gather and submit it to the State Department for submission to the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

The City of Berkeley in September 2009 voted to become the first U.S. city to make reports under these treaties. City officials now state that collecting the information for the reports has heightened concern about human rights at City Hall.

Rev. Daniel Buford, President of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute and Prophetic Justice Minister at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, testified before the Assembly Appropriations Committee before adoption of the Resolution. He reported that he found the three treaties very helpful in working on justice in the killing of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle last year.

Attorney Ann Fagan Ginger, founder of MCLI, reports enthusiastic response when she describes the treaties to African American, Asian American, Latino and human rights organizations, students, unions, and people working on health care, prison conditions, the homeless, immigrant rights, ecology issues, and all other human rights related issues.

When the United States ratifies a treaty, it becomes part of U.S. law under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. The United States has not fully complied with its obligations under our ratified human rights treaties. While our government does not hesitate to criticize other countries for their human rights violations, it has been derelict in complying with our own human rights commitments. Hopefully the California Senate will also pass this important legislation which would send a strong message to other states and the federal government that this country is serious about protecting human rights.

MARJORIE COHN, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild, is the deputy secretary general for external communications of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and the U.S. representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. See www.marjoriecohn.com.

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Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and former president of the National Lawyers Guild. She writes, speaks and does media about human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Her most recent book is “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” Visit her website at http://marjoriecohn.com/ and follow her on Twitter at @marjoriecohn.

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