Bringing Human Rights Home: Engagement and Environmental Justice
By Jessica Sblendorio
When most Americans think about human rights, they tend to think of the concept at a global level, even though there are many social and environmental justice issues right here in the United States that affect many of our neighborhoods and families. Environmental justice is an ever-growing movement that highlights issues such as health, access to safe drinking water, and housing that are at the heart of treaties and laws focused on human rights. Thus, at its core, environmental justice is about the intersection of human rights, the environment, and how people can equitably access the resources they need to survive. “Bringing human rights home” is a critical part of focusing on human rights issues here in our own neighborhoods in the United States and plays an important part of the global movements for environmental justice and international human rights.
An important mechanism for addressing and remedying human rights issues is through international treaties. Unfortunately, most Americans tend to have a very low level of awareness of such treaties and how they can be used to effect change here in the United States. As part of the United Nations (UN) treaty-monitoring process, countries report to UN treaty monitoring bodies about how they are protecting human rights and addressing issues submitted by members of civil society – those non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest the interests and will of citizens. The United States participates in this process for the treaties that it has signed and ratified, thus becoming U.S. law. Some of these treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, both of which conducted reviews of the United States’ compliance with these treaties during 2014.
As a student working in the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami’s School of Law, I was able to contribute to a “shadow report” on immigrants’ rights that highlighted examples of challenges with implementation of the ICCPR. Many organizations and members of civil society use these companion reports as opportunities to highlight issues where the government and society can work together to address human rights violations and improve compliance with treaties. This engagement is important for addressing human rights not only on a global level, but here at home as well.
Working on the shadow report, I came to realize the importance of engagement between stakeholders — both civil society and government. This summer during my internship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), I had the opportunity to experience what stakeholder engagement is like from the perspective of government. I also learned about how engagement by all stakeholders makes the conversation meaningful and productive for all parties. One of the projects I worked on was to help plan a recent meeting between civil society and government representatives on environmental issues in advance of the 2015 UN Periodic Review of human rights records. This consultation was held in Berkeley, California on October 7th, 2014. These types of meetings are important for both federal and civil stakeholders to engage with one another in a forum where environmental issues that are at the heart of “Bringing Human Rights Home” can be discussed.
This meeting came on the heels of a recent meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. For the first time, the EPA had a government representative at the CERD meeting in Geneva, which occurred this past August, to address the environmental issues raised by Committee members.
The realization of the importance and necessity of addressing the human health and environmental issues of minority and low-income residents, and their relationship to human rights, is becoming more and more prominent but it is dependent upon active and sustained engagement from both the government and civil society at large. Different avenues of stakeholder engagement are important to educate both citizens and the government to show the relevance of these issues and identify the methods and opportunities to make a visible difference in vulnerable communities. I feel honored to have been a part of this process, which opened my eyes to all the participation among stakeholders in this crucial process to inform the government’s perspective.
About the author: Jessica Sblendorio was recently a summer law clerk at EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. She is a law student at the University of Miami School of Law, and will be graduating in Spring 2015.
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