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Where is US Leadership in New Orleans on Human Rights Day?

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On Human Rights Day the world celebrates the work of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others to craft the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The document defines the international community's commitments to human rights as "the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

The United States, a nation built on the concept of "inalienable rights", despite recent shortcomings has been a historic example and an international leader in spreading human rights. Still true leadership is not just about pointing fingers and coercing other countries to respect rights. It requires the courage and introspection to address human rights crisis that develop at home.

A serious human rights crisis has developed for people displaced from the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, particularly from New Orleans. More than a million people were uprooted from their communities after the storm with over 300,000 from New Orleans alone still displaced over one year after the levees broke. These vulnerable displaced people have been all but abandoned by their government officials as the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region is being determined.

Community leaders in the city are embracing the idea that all the storm's survivors have a right to return to their neighborhoods to participate in the rebuilding process.

"There are instances of officials at all levels of government siding against repairing homes and restoring the lives of displaced people," said Stephen Bradberry, ACORN lead organizer in New Orleans and 2005 winner of the RFK Human Rights Award. "There needs to be a fundamental shift towards government assistance that supports the right to return to a place once called home."

This idea is supported by the internationally approved framework to equally protect the human rights of people before, during and after being displaced by a humanitarian disaster, the U.N.'s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

The Principles includes rights to shelter, food, water, due process and equal justice, but also the right to health, access to information and the right to vote and participate in local decisions about rebuilding. The final responsibility for the human rights of displaced people falls to the federal government, which is required to create conditions to allow the displaced to voluntarily return and not remain displaced for longer than necessary.

The U.S. Agency for International Development already endorses the Principles and uses US tax dollars to implement its framework to uphold human rights in post-tsunami Sri Lanka and post-war Iraq or Colombia. Oddly Bush Administration officials over the summer told the UN Human Rights Committee that they believe Americans displaced by Katrina, who they evasively re-brand as "evacuees", do not deserve the rights extended under the Principles. Following through on this lack of commitment, legal scholars with the Institute of Southern Studies have found the federal government in violation of 16 of 30 Principles.

While the US government's failures to respond to Hurricane Katrina have been well documented, fewer people realize its role in stopping the displaced from receiving the aid necessary to pull their lives back together to return and rebuild.

FEMA arbitrarily denied thousands of vulnerable displaced families access to housing aid until a federal judge ruled against the agency last week, describing FEMA's system for delivering aid as "Kafkaesque", likening it to the writer's disturbing tales of horror. Still FEMA has refused the judges orders to begin payments while it mounts its appeal. Hurricane survivors, leaders from ACORN and Members of Congress like Maxine Waters (D-CA), Al Green (D-TX), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) pressed federal officials in Washington, DC, New Orleans and Houston this week to follow the judge's orders and resume payments to save displaced survivors facing eviction.

Thousands of families have been permanently evicted from New Orleans public housing by the city's US Department of Housing and Urban Development administrator, HANO. The agency plans to use relief funds in a saddening twist to bulldoze 5,000 habitable apartments, the majority of the city's subsidized housing, senselessly denying their former tenants their right to return home. They plan to start building mixed income housing in its place with room for about 10% as many low income people, further shrinking the city's stock of affordable housing as rental prices have already risen 70% by some accounts.

To the detriment of local democracy, hundreds of thousands of displaced people who were scattered across 46 different states have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and neighborhoods. FEMA refuses to use its knowledge about the current whereabouts of the displaced to help these citizens stay informed and participate with local authorities in decisions that will affect their families and communities. Local officials, community organizations, and churches have had to improvise to plan and communicate about important new policies.

Displaced homeowners remain unable to afford the repairs necessary to move home while $10.4 billion in federal aid to homeowners given to the state of Louisiana to administer months ago has reached only 44 families. How could the state rationalize sitting idly on these vital funds while its citizens continue to suffer?

Mayor Ray Nagin recently told USA Today local officials can not access most of the federal government's almost a billion dollars pledged to rebuild New Orleans' infrastructure. The federal government in his view has violated federal laws requiring it to assist after a disaster in the rebuilding of the vital infrastructure, necessary to encourage people and businesses to return.

Of course city officials are not without fault.

In August the City of New Orleans was set to begin seizing the homes of displaced people who had not been able to afford to restore their property while the federal government remained silent. Thankfully brave local advocates like ACORN and other pressured the City Council and reformed a local ordinance at the last minute to protect the property rights of the disadvantaged and to allow appeals.

The federal government needs to step up as the defender of the values our country defined in helping create the Universal Declaration back in 1948. The United States can still lead the world in human rights but leadership must begin at home. There is still hope that the incoming Congress will work with the President ending the federal indifference to the abuses faced by the displaced in rebuilding efforts and make sure these kinds of abuses will not occur in future relief efforts. It is not too late for the federal government to adapt their policies to limit suffering and empower the displaced to return and participate in rebuilding their lives, their communities and the entire Gulf Coast.