The text below is from a presentation given by Kairos Co-Director Larry Cox at the Human Rights Institute at Columbia. Larry will be giving an online seminar on similar topics on December 10th, Human Rights Day, which you can register for here.
I want to express my deep appreciation to the Human Rights Institute not so much for asking me to speak today, but for their truly pioneering understanding and teaching that if human rights do not apply everywhere they have no meaning anywhere, and for their excellent work all these years of putting their considerable knowledge and expertise at the service of people fighting for those rights in the United States of America. This exemplary work has never been more important. Unfortunately it has also never been more difficult.
It is important because we are living as we gather here with a long-standing but increasingly horrific human rights crisis both globally and in this country. “Human rights crisis” is one of those abstract phrases which does not really capture the horror of what is going on in our world and country. What is going on is deep, massive, and unnecessary suffering resulting from continuous violations of the human rights all governments are pledged to uphold.
Sometimes that suffering is made visible. The image of the small body of a 3 year old named Aylan Kurdi drowned off the coast of Turkey became for a moment a window into the indescribable horror of countless men, women, and children fleeing repression and wars that as the world watched over the last five years have killed hundreds of thousands and made millions of families homeless. And we have seen these people fleeing for their lives to Europe being greeted by barbed wire fences, by water hoses, by what many aid workers call concentration camps, and, worst of all, by shocking indifference from countries around the world including the United States.
The suffering caused by gross violations of human rights in the U.S. is kept less visible but it is no less massive and no less horrific. In 1948 the governments of the world proclaimed that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.” Today nearly 70 years later in the United States, the wealthiest nation on earth and in human history, some 46 million people officially live in poverty. Another 97 million are termed low income. Together that is nearly half the nation! 48% of people in the U.S. are either officially poor or low income.
It is hard to find any single image that captures what these human rights violations mean but we know what they do. They kill, they kill many and often and not just in the ugly and terrible form, a form that does and should horrify us, of unarmed black men being shot by police. These poverty killings are often silent and invisible. According to the Mailman School of Public Health here at Columbia, in just one year the deaths of some 875,000 people were caused by poverty and related deprivation. That statistic of course does not measure the pain of those still keeping alive but it should make clear why the work of stopping human rights violations in this country is not just important but urgent, literally a matter of life and death.
What is making this critical work so difficult, increasingly difficult, is that we are also living with another crisis. This is the crisis of what is often called the human rights movement. This is a crisis of the very idea of human rights. This crisis can only be measured by what we don’t see and what we don’t hear. We don’t see, in response to this massive suffering caused by violations of human rights, an equally massive wave of public outrage. We don’t hear politicians or other influential public figures making demands in the name of human rights that urgent and effective actions be taken. We have well funded and very well covered congressional committees on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, on bogus videos on Planned Parenthood, but little attention by the government or media given to how to respond to the desperation of millions of refugees and almost none to developing meaningful plans for dealing with the economic desperation of people in this country.
Listen hard for even one question in the presidential debates talking about human rights in the United States. There was recently one public figure in Washington talking about human rights, and he did so more in a few days than most politicians do in a decade. But he was, alas, just a visitor from Italy, a strange follower of a radial Jew who was executed along time ago precisely for stirring up the poor. What made the Pope’s words so striking was the contrast to the silence of so many others in that city with governing responsibilities who give no evidence that their actions or proposals respond to or are shaped by concern for human rights The decline in pressure for accountability on U.S. human rights commitments is inextricably connected to the continuation and increase in U.S. human rights violations.
So how do we change this? How do we recapture not only the promise of human rights but its power? I won’t pretend that I know the full answer to that but I do know how to start. We have to look at what gives human rights power. And we have to look hard at what has been done by governments and dominant elites and to some extent by all of us to contain, control, tame and take away that power.
There is, after all, nothing new about governments ignoring the words on human rights that they applauded and adopted so long ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They did it literally for decades after 1948. What finally gave those words meaning and revealed their power was not the documents in which they were placed or government lip service but acts of resistance by those to whom they most applied — those whose rights were most egregiously violated.
It was the stories of people like Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer, Victor Jara and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Oscar Romero and Sister Jean Donovan, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, Cory Aquino and Kim Dae Jung that finally put a face on human rights and inspired thousands of activists to take part in a new and astoundingly effective non-violent global movement. Their courage came not from faith in UN documents but from something experienced deep within themselves: the rights and dignity inherent in their very being and in the being of us all.
This is the primary source of power of the idea of universal rights. As that idea became a global narrative it generated actions that helped to end dictatorships from Chile to the Philippines to Poland and to knock down literal and metaphorical walls of political, racial, and gender oppression. As the power of the idea of human rights visibly grew throughout the second half of the 20th century, both governments and non-governmental organizations responded in different ways. Successive U.S. governments worked hard to keep such far reaching and challenging human rights obligations from being applied to the U.S. You can learn how they did this in books like Eyes Off the Prize by Carol Anderson.
Suffice to say they did it well and protected U.S. apartheid and poverty from the standards developed in Paris and Geneva. As they did this they slowly discovered that human rights could helpfully and selectively be used to attack enemies abroad as well as reform the excesses of some not so powerful but embarrassing allies.
At the global level, seeking to maintain control of such a potentially dangerous idea, governments at the UN slowly channeled the energy of activists into an array of inter-governmental mechanisms of review, discussion, and standard setting – valuable but cumbersome, greatly limited in scope and power, and very, very slow. Meanwhile those rights that raised questions about global and national economic systems were largely and in the case of the United States aggressively ignored.
And then there is the role of human rights NGOs.
As these NGOs grew in resources, size, and number, their work also began to change and to change however subtly the meaning of human rights. Human rights slowly and not always consciously began to shift from being a movement involving all into a career for some. Taking advantage of greater funding, key human rights organizations sought to increase the effectiveness of volunteer activism by hiring more professionals, who contributed to developing a discourse and approach more legal than moral. As professionals often do, they helped shape human rights into a separate specialized discipline that required expertise to fully understand and practice. The role of non-professional volunteers became increasingly not to take action but to give money to organizations that would act, better than they could, on behalf of them and on behalf of so called voiceless victims.
This move was accompanied by development of a kind of human rights fetishism. The phrase ‘human rights’ and the standards, conventions and laws built around it began to be treated as if they had a kind of magical power. It was as if it was enough to discover and describe the violations of rights without having to deal with the economic and political systems, interests, and power relations that caused those violations,. This is reflected in the celebration of the core methodology known as “naming and shaming.” The idea grew, fueled by some real and important successes, that simply documenting and publicizing violations of UN standards can by itself cause governments to change behavior because they feel ashamed or at least are fearful of harming their reputation. The hard and slow work of mobilizing widespread pressure from activists, let alone building sustained mass movements, was increasingly seen as an unnecessary diversion from serious human rights work.
Unfortunately the last decades have amply demonstrated the limits of “shaming”: especially when it is not backed by the mobilization of social power. Governments don’t shame easily and the tactic was undermined as governments lost important incentives to take human rights seriously. For a government like the United States, when the Cold War ended the active promotion of certain civil and political human rights as a key part of foreign policy became much less useful. Then came a new war, a hotter one: the war on terror. And to many governments, including the U.S., human rights began to look not like an ally in that war but an obstacle to the use of their power to fight it.
They also discovered that with the manipulation of fear, both justified and imagined, they could build significant public support for certain practices, like holding people in prison without charges or even torture. Human rights activists asserted correctly that these practices were shameful, but governments learned that fear could trump shame. And then came soaring inequality and widespread economic collapse and hardship that helped to fuel mass protests like Occupy in the United States, the Arab Spring, and radical popular movements in Europe and many other countries. Now human rights, especially when in the hands of people in the streets and when at long last applied also at home, began to be seen as what many in Washington always knew they were — dangerous.
It isn’t that no one in the government and in other elite institutions sees the urgent need to do something about the growing visibility of obscene wealth for a few and increasing poverty and hardship for the many. It’s a similar situation with all the brutal injustices rooted in economic and racial inequality, from mass incarceration to police killing of black men and children.
But the challenge for these elites is how to deal with these problems in an orderly way without going too far and fueling radical analysis and social uprisings that challenge in a fundamental way the systems that have produced them. Human rights is an idea that draws its power from those whose rights are most violated and these are people, often raggedy people, who are likely to demand not only that decisions being made benefit them but that they be directly involved in those decisions. And for elites mass participation in politics is very messy, especially when people are asserting their human rights.
Human rights are based on the radical idea that every person has them equally and they cannot be violated. They do not lend themselves to the kind of tradeoffs in which some are sacrificed so that others can make the economy work. Human rights simply do not fit well with elite efforts to fix things in a non-confrontational and polite way. So we begin to see, for example, key institutions like the Ford Foundation now downplaying human rights just as it is promising to solve the problem of inequality.
But there are places where, thank God, human rights cannot be downplayed. These are the places that offer us hope. When old ways of thinking and acting no longer work to advance the deepest desires of the human spirit, people don’t stop fighting. Instead they struggle to find new and more powerful ways to keep fighting. That is what can be seen — if you look to the streets and communities and not to the mainstream media — in the United States today. You can see it in so many struggles — in the Fight for 15, in the Dreamer movement, in the battle against fossil fuels and climate change and environmental racism, in the powerful Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, in campaigns for the human right to health care in Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, and in the battle for black lives in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York and across the country.
These are not what those who feel they are in charge of labels would call human rights organizations, movements or battles. They are, however, all fights for human rights. And they bring what has been missing far too much and for far too long from those who do wear the human rights label: the leadership of those most directly affected, in particular young people, from all walks of life; a refusal to separate moral vision and spiritual values from explicit political objectives; a growing understanding that the oppression experienced is not the result of a few individuals or bad policies but local, national, and global systems set up to benefit and enrich a tiny minority; and a spirit of resistance, often expressed in old and new song, that like the genuine spirit of human rights comes out of the deepest part of our very beings.
Those in the streets do not need tutorials on human rights standards. They do need what human rights has often given to those most oppressed: first and foremost a sense of the power of the rights that are in each and all of us, rights that no government has given, rights that no government can take away, and rights that all governments are obliged to uphold. And it is the understanding of these human rights, of the way all rights are deeply connected and the way they connect all human beings. It can also help create what is needed most of all – and what is hardest to achieve when people begin, for different reasons and in different ways, to rise up and fight for their lives and for common rights and deepest values – and that is unity. Not a perfect or easy unity, not an organizational one, but one that comes from finding in separate struggles a shared vision and common moral purpose; a unity genuine enough to overcome the deep divisions used to keep those who are hurting fighting each other. That kind of unity can take us from merely reacting to the latest horrific social disasters to developing enough power to transform the society that creates them.
This is the great human rights challenge of our time and it is hard to overstate either its importance or its difficulty. Scholars of struggle from W.E.B. Dubois to Michele Alexander have detailed well how the creation of different levels of oppression and denial of rights based on gender and race have long been critical in maintaining the power of an increasingly tiny minority of the most privileged. These divisions caused by sexism and racism are real and deep and long standing. They have to be confronted and fought constantly but that fight cannot be won with sympathy or “allyship” or a superficial solidarity. Those divisions can only be fought with a unity based on shared rights, shared humanity, and a common interest in creating a society that allows both to be fulfilled for all, and especially for those who have been the most marginalized.. No one can say for sure that out of these growing struggles such unity can be built. All that can be said for sure is that we have the opportunity.
We have that opportunity because we are living in what at my new place of work we call a kairos moment, using an old Greek and biblical word that means a time when old ways are crumbling and something new is trying to be born. A kairos moment is a time for decisive action.
But as we know, a kairos moment does not guarantee success.
For it is not the first time we have experienced a kairos moment in this country. In 1967 one of the greatest human rights fighters this country has ever known, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also saw the burning need for something radically new. He had seen that when the civil rights movement began to move from the south to the whole country it began to become a human rights movement. When he began to talk about economics and militarism he was abandoned — indeed viciously attacked — by his elite “allies.” He knew how difficult it would be, especially at the end of long struggle that had torn the country apart, to build a new kind of movement that would cut across all the divides of gender and race that keep oppressed peoples fighting each other instead of the common systems that oppress them. He called for a Poor People’s Campaign that would disrupt the nation. He was killed while working with sanitation workers in Memphis in the lead-up to that campaign. The Poor Peoples Campaign he called for was cut short but the need for it has only grown along with poverty, racism, militarism and ecological disaster. Today there are voices calling for it again. The hope is that this time those voices will be heard and heeded.
So I want to end with some words of Dr. King’s which speak as powerfully today as they did then about what human rights requires.
In 1967 he told his staff:

“We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power…this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together…you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others…”

Later that year, while making a public call for a Poor People’s Campaign, he said:

“The emergency we now face is economic, and it is a desperate and worsening situation. For the 35 million poor people in America — not even to mention, just yet, the poor in the other nations – there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist. You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, denying in his case the very creed of his society. Now, millions of people are being strangled that way. The problem is international in scope. And it is getting worse, as the gap between the poor and the ‘affluent society’ increases…
“The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty…There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…”

“If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”
That, my friends, is the hope and the future of human rights in the United States.