In tandem with community organizing and grassroots advocacy, legal strategies can enshrine commitments to human rights and racial justice in legal standards, practices, and jurisprudence.
Examples from the USHRF’s 2011 convening include:
1. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
As a member of the Organization of American States, the United States is bound by a regional human rights framework under the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR monitors member states' compliance by considering human rights violations claims and issuing recommendations to government officials.
Jessica Lenahan’s story illustrates remedies available through the IACHR. In 1999, Jessica's estranged husband abducted their daughters, violating a restraining order. The police repeatedly dismissed her pleas for help, and the story ended in tragedy—all three daughters were killed. Jessica pursued justice through the U.S court system, but the Supreme Court ruled that Jessica had no right to enforcement of her order of protection. Undeterred, she and her legal team brought a case against the U.S. government to the IACHR. In a landmark decision, the IACHR found that the U.S. committed human rights violations against Jessica and her children. Her case provides significant lessons:
- International law offers an alternative arena to U.S. Courts, and an opportunity to mitigate weaknesses in domestic law.
- Using international courts brings individual cases to global attention and highlights systemic problems. In Jessica’s case, 90 organizations and individuals submitted supporting briefs describing the government’s neglect of protections for abused women and children.
2. International Human Rights Standards in U.S. Court Rulings: Juvenile Life Without Parole
The United States is the only country in the world that imposes life without parole sentences on youth. This is a serious insult to racial and juvenile justice: at least 73.7% of prisoners currently serving life without possibility of parole sentences for crimes committed in their youth are people of color.
However, international laws have increasingly gained relevance in court decisions. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that the death sentence for juveniles was unconstitutional. Justice Kennedy cited the “overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.”
In Graham v. Florida, the Court declared juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentencing in non-homicide cases unconstitutional, proclaiming that it had "looked beyond our Nation's borders for support for its independent conclusion that a particular punishment is cruel and unusual." The decisions in Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida suggest that:
- International human rights standards do not have to be binding in order to alter domestic legal trends.
- International human rights law can offer more expansive protections than domestic laws.
- Grassroots organizing and advocacy play a key role in these victories. For example, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Juvenile Law Center have built support among diverse coalitions and the public around ending JLWOP. They have constructively engaged with opposing voices, such as victims' rights groups and law enforcement associations, and empowered affected communities and families to bring about reform.
3. Local and State Human Rights Laws and Commissions
Though we may be years away from federal-level adoption of human rights principles, a growing body of local and state human rights laws, commissions, resolutions, and ordinances paint an encouraging picture of the vibrant potential of human rights.
A historic victory in San Francisco paved the way for other city governments to incorporate human rights standards. In the late 1990s, activists from the Women's Institute for Leadership Development (WILD) for Human Rights won an ordinance requiring the city government to implement the UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The ordinance required city departments to analyze the gendered impacts of city policies and remedy those that resulted in unequal access and opportunities for women. This resulted in tangible policy improvements. For example, several city departments allowed for more flexible schedules to accommodate the unique needs of female employees and those with parenting responsibilities.
Since then, several cities have explored their own ways of translating human rights principles into policy and practice, demonstrating that:
- Local initiatives can serve as ideal venues to figure out how to best "operationalize" human rights. Collaboration between citizens and leaders happens more easily in cities than on a national level.
- Such policies solidify a proactive approach to ensuring human rights rather than merely reacting to abuses or transgressions.
- For more examples of local human rights commissions in action, see the Human Rights City Project of Eugene, Oregon or Seattle’s Human Rights Commission.