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International Human Rights Violations Here in the U.S.:
A U.N. Visit to Chicago's Cabrini-Green Housing Project


Thursday, May. 06, 2004

Lately, U.S. conduct abroad has triggered a number of inquiries into alleged -- and in some cases, undeniable -- violations of international human rights.

Photos testify that American troops have abused Iraqi prisoners in terrible ways. Some have argued that the U.S.'s practice of sending accused terrorists to be interrogated in countries where torture is permitted violates America's obligations under the U.N. Convention Against Torture. And allegations of U.S. guards' mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo seem all the more relevant as the Supreme Court decides whether U.S. federal courts can review detainees' claims.

Meanwhile, as the news gives Americans an education in international human rights issues, American citizens seem more willing to consider the possibility of violations right here at home.

In this column, I will consider one example of this trend: Chicago public housing project residents' contention that the conditions in which they are living amount to human right violations. They assert that, just as the world is paying attention to the human rights abuses taking place thousands of miles beyond our borders, it ought to pay equal attention to the human rights abuses taking place in Chicago.

Chicago Public Housing Residents Call in The United Nations

Last month, Miloon Kothari -- the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, who reports directly to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva -- flew to Chicago to meet a group of public housing residents.

They were residents of the Cabrini-Green development -- which is one of America's most notoriously dangerous public housing projects, as a result of a long history of neglect and gang activity. They had invited Kothari to visit partly out of desperation -- never expecting he would take their invitation seriously. (Kothari has never done an in-depth study on housing conditions in the United States.)

Currently, Chicago's plan to deal with public housing seems to be to demolish it: More than 20,000 units are slated to be razed as part of the city's 10-year plan to transform public housing. But public housing residents, organized through the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, point out that the result has hardly been an improvement: some have been forced to move into homeless shelters and temporary dwellings because they are not given assistance in finding new residences.

The Cabrini-Green residents also told Kothari that they are not alone. President Bush has proposed drastic funding cuts for federal programs that provide subsidized housing for America's lowest income families. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it is changing the way it funds the 2004 housing choice voucher program. As a result, many local housing authorities will be short of the funds needed to cover all vouchers currently in use. Now, housing authorities across the country are planning for the possibility of having to terminate residents from the program, or otherwise cover funding shortfalls. It seems likely that across the nation, other public housing residents will be in the situation of many Cabrini-Green residents: going from inadequate housing, to no housing at all.

In his discussions with Cabrini-Green residents, Kothari acknowledged that there indeed seems to be a human rights crisis in the forced evictions of public housing tenants from their units.

International Law on the Right to Housing

Readers may wonder: Isn't housing a domestic issue? The answer is that international law clearly says otherwise. And here, I am not referring to unwritten international law principles -- but rather to treaties the U.S. has signed and ratified.

The U.S. has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes a right to protection from arbitrary or unlawful interference with one's home, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which prohibits actions with respect to housing that have the effect of discriminating against persons of color. (Most of Cabrini-Green's residents are African-American). It has also signed the American Convention on Human Rights, which requires progressive measures on the part of governments to fully realize adequate housing for all sectors of the population.

In addition, the U.S. was a primary drafter of, and has adopted, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate of the health and well being of himself and his family, including housing.

Finally, as a U.N. member, the U.S. is subject to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights Resolution 19993/77 -- which urges governments to undertake immediate measures to prevent forced evictions.

Meanwhile, the residents have several very good reasons to invoke international human rights. First, they have not been offered any domestic redress or remedy -- and they are in a desperate situation.

Second, the international law sources I've mentioned above go further than the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes -- which do not mention a right to housing. (Many state constitutions provide for giving support for the state residents' public health or welfare, but also do not enumerate specific rights to housing.) Thus, they provide especially strong support for the residents' claims. And ratified treaties are legally part of U.S. law, just as the Constitution and federal statutes are.

Third, it is wrong -- and from the government's perspective, embarrassing -- for the U.S. government to trumpet human rights abroad and violate them at home. The members of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing are right to bring attention to this dissonance and hypocrisy.

The Broader Trend Of Which the Cabrini-Green Example Is a Part

The Cabrini-Green residents' experience is part of a larger trend that is taking place on several fronts. Not only are treaties taking a more prominent role in the U.S., but so are decisions by international tribunals and foreign courts.

In a prior column, I discussed the increasing use of international law and foreign precedents in U.S. courts. Last October, in a speech in Atlanta, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor added fuel to the controversy over this development, predicting that, "over time we will rely increasingly, or take notice at least increasingly, of international and foreign courts in examining domestic issues."

In my prior column, I predicted that there would be growing resistance to views such as Justice O'Connor's. And, indeed, this is exactly what has happened. Recently, Republican House members Tom Feeney of Florida and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, joined by more than 50 co-sponsors, proposed a non-binding resolution to express the opinion of Congress that judicial decisions should not be based in foreign laws or court decisions. Feeney even went so far as to say that "To the extent they deliberately ignore Congress' admonishment, the judges are no longer engaging in 'good behavior' in the meaning of the Constitution and they may subject themselves to the ultimate remedy, which would be impeachment."

The use of treaties -- which after all, are U.S. and not foreign law -- has been less controversial, and is growing rapidly. The Ford Foundation recently issued an extensive report describing more than a dozen legal and political campaigns in the United States that currently utilize an international human rights strategy.

Groups concerned with women, poor people, Native Americans, and immigrants are all drawing upon, and interposing themselves, in the international legal arena to fight for their rights in the United States. Each of them, like the public housing residents in Chicago, face frustrating obstacles in U.S. courts. Many are responding by trying foreign and international tribunals.

Why is this happening? Is it because American courts are unfriendly to plaintiffs seeking remedies for alleged discrimination? Is it because there is a long history of racial minorities and disadvantaged groups going to the United Nations seeking relief? Is it because the international community is increasingly concerned about what is taking place within the United States, as a way of understanding how the U.S. operates beyond its borders?

All these possible reasons seem plausible. But it also seems that Americans' growing familiarity with human rights law is closely linked to the media's growing discussion of possible human rights abuses committed by the U.S. in Iraq. Thus, the war, and the surrounding discussion of the conflict, is raising the profile of human rights in a unique and possibly lasting way here in the United States.

Noah Leavitt, a lawyer and author, is the Advocacy Director for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. While JCUA is a supporter of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, the opinions here do not reflect the official position of his organization. Leavitt can be reached at

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