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Human Rights Offer a Platform for Change in New York City

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By JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Caroline Stover and Douglas Cantwell

Yesterday was Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Around the world December 10th signals recognition of the fundamental idea that all people are born equal in dignity and rights.  From Sydney to Stockholm, Sao Paolo to Seattle, human rights are celebrated, including right in our own backyard, at the United Nations.
 
As New York prepares for a new mayoral administration, Human Rights Day also offers a moment to take stock of how human rights can help shape the future of our city.  Human rights, including the Universal Declaration we honor today, offer a visionary framework and values that can guide local policymaking. 

During his recent acceptance speech, Mayor-Elect de Blasio stated that "inequality -- that feeling of a few doing very well, while so many slip further behind -- that is the defining challenge of our time." (President Obama recently echoed this idea on a national scale). Building upon the idea of "One New York, Rising Together," the de Blasio campaign coalesced around "a tale of two cities" -- one of boundless opportunity for a privileged few, and one where basic needs of the most vulnerable residents are not being met.
 
Human rights offer a unifying approach to tackle the multifaceted issues on de Blasio's agenda, including advancing equality for women, increasing affordable housing, equitable development, fostering safety in communities of color, and improving immigrant inclusion, among others.  The Mayor should demonstrate a commitment to human rights and work with City Council to achieve these goals and unite us as one city, rising together.  Standing up for human rights means using these rights as a baseline to develop proactive, participatory and inclusive policy solutions.    

Recognizing the power of a human rights approach, a number of cities and states are already using human rights to advance local policy.  The de Blasio Administration can build upon these innovative efforts through three initial steps. 
 
First, commit to proactively prevent and address discrimination in all its forms, whether intentional or unintentional.  San Francisco is one city that has adopted international human rights principles in a local ordinance to address discrimination and achieve gender equity.  Assessments conducted under the ordinance have led to changes in departmental hiring practices, increasing employment of women, as well as new city laws on flex time and paid sick leave.  A proposed bill to expand existing protections against discrimination in New York, based on human rights principles and modeled in part on San Francisco's ordinance, has been introduced several times (most recently in 2010 with 30 city council sponsors and broad support from community groups), but this version was never put to a vote.  
 
Second, prioritize an adequate standard of living for all, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This includes ensuring living wages and access to adequate and affordable housing, education and healthcare, regardless of employment or other status.  The state of Vermont and city of Madison are among the jurisdictions already using human rights to ensure freedom from want.  In 2011, Vermont passed legislation providing universal healthcare for all state residents.  Madison, Wisconsin has a resolution prioritizing meeting the basic need for housing in the city.  Rhode Island is one of the several states that recently enacted Homeless Bills of Rights as part of growing efforts to combat criminalization of homelessness, which divert funding from constructive solutions and exacerbate a cycle of poverty. Baltimore, Maryland is the first U.S. city to propose such a bill. 
 
Third, the administration should take deliberate steps to enhance transparency and accountability, hallmarks of the human rights framework.  Salt Lake City, Seattle and Eugene, Oregon are among the cities prioritizing engagement through initiatives built upon sustained community dialogue, surveys and roundtables to foster inclusive and participatory policymaking.

Following his mayoral victory, Bill de Blasio said that New York is the brightest embodiment of the idea behind American greatness:  "It doesn't matter where you were born what you look like what your religion is, or who you love." This vision of New York is one that recognizes that we are all fundamentally equal by virtue of our humanity.  
 
By committing to uphold core human rights principles, Mayor de Blasio can foster meaningful change to make this vision a reality.  Ultimately, this will lead to a climate in which all of us can prosper, regardless of our backgrounds and differences.  

Mayors are increasingly recognizing their role on the front lines of protecting and promoting human rights. Mayor de Blasio should embrace this role today and commit to uphold human rights.

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JoAnn Kamuf Ward is the Associate Director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project at Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute and Acting Co-Director of the Law School's Human Rights Clinic. Caroline Stover and Doug Cantwell, students in the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, co-authored this piece.