Tag Archives: human rights

Human Rights – Common Threat, Common Theme

When Ursula LeGuin and Pope Francis echo each other’s concern for basic human rights being relegated to mere commodities it is time to take heed. As these intellectual giants remind us, human beings have a certain and inalienable right to access to food and access to information and ideas. The right to food and literature transcend the unfettered pursuit of wealth and the power that it affords. Pope Francis spoke at the International Food and Agriculture conference meeting in Rome.(http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49396#.VHjGY8aC14M). Ursula LeGuin shared her thoughts from the prestigious platform of the 2014 National Book Awards. (http://www.nationalbook.org/amerletters_2014_uleguin.html#.VHjFjcaC14M)

Similarly global voices are speaking out for the human right to Internet access; there is a growing Global Net Neutrality Coalition that now represents more than 35 human rights and technology organizations from 19 countries. (http://thisisnetneutrality.org) Andrea Germanos has written an extensive article on the human right to Internet access in the November 24, 2014 issue o f Common Dreams. (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2014/11/24/global-survey-internet-access-should-be-human-right.

Clearly, the very definition of human rights is on our collective consciousness.

On December 10, 2014, we will celebrate Human Rights Day, commemorating the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming its principles as the “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” The theme of Human Rights Day 2014 is Human Rights 365. There will be local, national and international commemorations of the day and of the achievements of human rights activists over the decades.

To put the issues of 2014 in perspective it is enlightening to review the summary of human rights achievements that have been made since the 1948 Declaration. Since 1993 the High Commissioner for Human Rights has borne the responsibility to advocate, monitor, and train advocates as well as to contribute to legislative and policy reforms to increase accountability for human rights violations and to advance human rights. A summary of achievements over the past two decades suggests a broad range of initiatives ranging from the rights of victims of torture to the rights of LGBT individuals, people with disabilities, rights of the elderly, women’s rights and the human rights responsibilities of business enterprises. (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/OHCHR20_Backup/Pages/Achievements.aspx)

In 2013, on the 20th anniversary of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights the OHCHR issued a review of accomplishments. (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/OHCHR20_Backup/Pages/Achievements.asp)

A pervasive message emanates from the chorus of voices calling for attention to the universality of human rights. The 2013 report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlights the single human right that trumps the rampant forces that threaten the inherent rights of human beings on every front:

There is heightened awareness and growing demand by people worldwide for greater transparency and accountability from government and for the right to participate fully in public life. 

 Millions of people have gone on to the streets over the past few years, in countries all across the world. They have been asking for their right to participate fully in the important decisions and policies affecting their daily lives, at the international, national and the local levels.

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Every person shall have the right to vote and be elected, and to have access to public service, as well as to free expression, assembly and association. These are among the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which 167 States are party. And they have been restated in many similar ways in other laws and documents.

* * * * *

Transparency, which engenders truth, is the foundation for all this.

Robert David Steele 

The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth, and Trust



The Challenge to Frame the Right to Food as a Human Right

Writing last fall in The Nation Anna Lappe makes a powerful point about why it is hard for Americans to think of the right to food as a human right.  Lappe avers that “it’s extremely difficult to get the concept of the right to food across in the United States because of your constitutional tradition that sees human rights as ‘negative’ rights – rights against government – not ‘positive’ rights that can be used to oblige government to take action to secure people’s livelihoods.”

Lappe, founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and head of the Real Food Media Project, suggests that “so embedded is this in your constitutional culture that the concept that social and economic rights are real rights is generally not accepted.  While human rights to health, education, social security or food are guaranteed to a certain extent through legislation, they are still seen as suspect…. The protective role of government is denounced as paternalistic and even as paving the way for totalitarianism.”

One of the early calls for this nation to re-think the right to food was publication of Diet for a Small Planet, a bestselling book written in 1971 by Frances Moore Lappe, mother of Anna.  A decade later, the concept of food as a human right was underscored when Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines in which he challenged the idea that the root cause of hunger is not a crisis of productivity but a crisis of power.  Anna Lappe echoes Amartya Sen when she writes, “hunger’s root cause is clearly not a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.”

Various agencies of the United Nations have taken a lead in re-framing the right to food as a human right. The right to food is variously defined, of course.  In general, the right refers to an essential element without which human beings cannot survive.  Much is written about the responsibility of the individual to fend for him/herself and the obligation of the state when the individual is not capable of obtaining food because of special circumstances such as imprisonment or military service.

“Food security” is the term currently used to describe the basics:  Food must be available, i.e. in sufficient quantity for the entire population; food must be accessible, i.e. each person must be able to procure nourishment either through his own production or through the capacity to buy food; access to food must be stable and continuous; and food must be healthy, i.e. consumable and clean.

Addressing the issue of hunger as a violation of human rights Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “while it is imperative to respond immediately to emergencies and commensurate humanitarian support and aid in order to address conditions of hunger, a human rights focus will focus will contribute to making solutions more durable and more equitable in the medium and long run.”

Similarly, Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has said that the food crisis is a man-made disaster with identifiable causes that obliges all States [nations] “to act without delay to bring relief to the victims.”  De Schutter has said that agricultural politics, the international trade regime, climate change and food aid may appear in some as purely social, economic, or humanitarian issues, but none of them can be addressed effectively without taking the right to be free from hunger into account.

Anna Lappe’s comments may explain in part the disinclination of the United States to sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which has now been signed by over 160 state parties.  Signees to the covenant agree to take steps to the maximum of their available resources to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to adequate food, both nationally and internationally.  In the nations that have agreed to the concept of food as a basic human right that right is specified either in law or in the constitution.

It seems an anomaly that the U.S. has not ratified the Covenant for economic and social rights.  Anna Lappe stresses that “the concept of economic and social rights is not un-American.”  She quotes FDR’s 1944 State of the Union address in which he suggested the need for a “Second Bill of Rights” covering basic social rights as an indispensable complement to the civil liberties listed in the Bill of Rights.

Clearly, reframing an issue as complex and pervasive as the right to food takes mental agility on the part of individuals, communities and society. One opportunity for group think will take place on Thursday, March 14, when Anna Lappe will speak at Noon at the Westminster Town Hall Forum.  Her talk, “Building Real Food Communities”, is co-sponsored by Minnesota FoodShare as part of this community’s celebration of March 2013 as Minnesota FoodShare Month.

Walking the Walk to End Hunger – With a Little Help from My Friends

In just five years, the Walk to End Hunger has become a Thanksgiving morning tradition.  During those same years hungry Minnesota families have had to depend more on the generosity of others to supplement their nutritional needs.

The Walk to End Hunger has evolved as an exemplary collaboration among nonprofit organizations that share the mission not just to provide nutritious food but to end hunger.  Some walkers get going before dawn, lace up their walking shoes, and meet at the MOA at 7:00 a.m.   Others join the marathoners at their own pace – the walk continues till 10:00 a.m.  Each walker or team is backed by a host of sponsors, friends and family who pledge to support the walker, the walker’s preferred nonprofit organization, and the imperative to end hunger.

In order to tilt the age distribution of the walking throng I have signed up to walk in support of Neighbors, Inc.   For the past months I have volunteered at Neighbors where I have come to know, respect and truly admire the organization that is now in its fortieth year serving Northern Dakota County residents who are in need of food, clothing, transportation and other support.

The idea of “giving back before giving thanks” inspires to me to think about those who will not be sitting down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast – even more, it makes me reflect on the difficult truth that we need a concerted effort to effect systemic change. Ours is a nation in which wasted food and hungry families are separated not by geography but by the collaborative joining of forces that the Walk typifies.

This is the ultimate family-friendly event.  There will be rides and other activities for young folks while some of the MOA shops will be open.   Walkers will have given it their all by 9:00 which leaves plenty of time to get home to baste the turkey, to head out to Grandma’s, or to see how the TC’s chef de jour tempts the Minnesota palate.

If you are touched by the need, inspired by the collaborative approach, seized by the challenge to end hunger, or just amazed that this Little Old Lady has the temerity to think she can keep pace, please consider sponsoring me with a contribution earmarked for Neighbors, Inc.    If you’re my vintage you can hum “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as you sign the check or try to read the numbers of your credit card.

ü  To learn more about the Walk to End Hunger, click here. To sign up as a sponsor check on “Visitor” then “Sponsor Participant.”

ü  To learn more about Neighbors, Inc. – click here.

ü  To hear a hard-sell personal pitch, call or email me.  612 781 4234 or mtreacy@onvoymail.com

Thank you very much for your commitment to end hunger.  We hope this walk will set the pace for what must to a sustained collaborative effort.

Help others first. Then help yourself to seconds.

“Miss Representation” Explores Media Bias

“Miss Representation” is the next in the 2011 Women’s Human Rights Film Series sponsored by the Advocates for Human Rights in collaboration with The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and Metropolitan State University.  The film is set for Wednesday, November 9, 7:00 p.m. at Metro State Founder’s Hall Auditorium, 700 East Seventh Street, St. Paul.


The film “uncovers a glaring reality in our society…how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America.”  It challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women.  Included in the story are stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with influential women from Condoleezza Rice to Gloria Steinem.  The promotion material promises that “the film accumulates startling facts and statistics that will leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective.”


All of the films in the series are free and open to the public.  Sign language interpretation and other accommodations are available with advance notice.


Contact The Friends at friends@thefriends.org or 651 222 3242.  More information at www.thefriends.org.


U.N. Declares Access to Internet a Basic Human Right

For some time I have (too quietly) beat the drum for including access to information as a fundamental human right.  A major step occurred this week when the United Nations declared with certainty that Internet access is indeed a human right and that denial of that right is against international law.

Though the action stems directly from the major shut down of Internet access in Syria it is, in fact, a response to access restriction throughout the Arab Spring. The United Nations action, written by Special Rapporteur Frank LaRue, speaks of the unique and transformative nature of the Internet which has the capacity for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion.  “LaRue writes:  “Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states.”

In his review of the UN action Nicholas Jackson, writing in The Atlantic, notes that “a BBC survey of 26 countries in March 2010 found that 79 percent of people believe access to the Internet is a fundamental right.”

Why don’t we just say that?  Perhaps, as Truthdig notes in its June 5 report on the UN action, “net neutrality – the concept that Internet use and content must be free of restriction by governments and Internet services providers – remains quietly under threat in the United States.”

Something to consider as Twin Cities advocates prepare for the NetRoots Nation conference and the host of meetings, announcements, and opportunities that surround it.

Belated awareness of the Stonewall Uprising

Do you ever feel as if you missed out on one entire chapter of life as it is happening around you?  That’s how I’m feeling about the Stonewall Uprising.  Knowing that my knowledge base was minimal I made a point last week to watch the PBS American Experience documentary – the story has been on my mind ever since.  In June 1969 I was alive, awake, in touch with many gay friends and gay students at the college where I was working in DC.  How did I miss that whole story?  And why has it taken me forty plus year to even try learn more about Stonewall and its place in our collective history?

It’s too late to go back, but I go forth with a new recognition of the import of that pivotal moment in American history.  Even more, I have a deeper understanding of what had gone before.  In my cocoon I simply did not understand the limits, insults, pain of gays in this country.  I was wrapped up in advocacy for civil and voting rights, seemingly oblivious to the parallel pain of the gay community in which I was living and working every day.

The Stonewall Uprising documentary, 90 minutes in length, opens a door.  PBS offers some supplementary reading and other resources. Needless to say, there are countless accounts of the occasion and the reality that led to that momentous confrontation.  There have been other documentaries, personal stories, dramatic presentations and more.  I’m wondering now if Stonewall has made the history textbooks….

This community offers rich resources that preserve the record.   For decades the Quatrefoil Library has collected stories of the pre-Stonewall era and reflections on the impact of the resistance of the gay community to police intrusion.  The Jean-Nicholas Tretter Collection  at the University of Minnesota Andersen Library is a treasure trove of GLBT history.

Clearly, I have much to learn.  Painful as our nation’s history may be, it is at our peril that we go blindfolded into the future, as I have clearly done for far too long.

The peril of benign neglect

My public radio hero Scott Simon grabbed my total attention Saturday when he thoughtfully observed:

In a country as free as ours, information is so free we can forget how precious and powerful it is. But authoritarian governments know that news, and even the nonsense and misinformation that goes with it, can be insurrectionary. That’s why they try to hold news back, contain it, strain it and dole it out to their citizens after it’s been sugar-coated, like treats to obedient children.

His words warmed, even lulled, my heart – until my head kicked in.  Suddenly thoughts of media mergers, erosion of investigative journalism, closed meetings, closed libraries, oversight lapses and unabashed censorship seeped through the warm thoughts.

What emerged was focus on the seminal thought: “in a country as free as ours, information is so free we can forget how precious and powerful it is.”  Therein lies the problem, that we forget.  We take it for granted.  The free flow of information and ideas is subliminal, implicit, routine, quixotic.  It is so invisible and so assumed that it is vulnerable at best, threatened today when public attention, not to mention funding, is in desperately short supply.

Sometimes I think we break it down to such minute detail that we lose the fundamental principle.

These thoughts have been rattling about in particular as I’ve tried to digest the recent manual on framing an issue in human rights terms by the Advocates for Human Rights about which I posted on the blog last week.  I’m trying to figure out how to frame access to information, particularly government information, as a human rights issue.  What would that look like?  Who would do the framing?  Who would care?  How would we turn a human right into laws and regulations?  How would we monitor implementation?

Of this I am certain:  It is at our peril that we assume all is well.  The convergence of telecommunications and information technology, simmering for a half century at least, has boiled over – and we’re all getting scalded, in part because the collective we have not been watching the pot.

What is on the back burner?  More mergers?  Less oversight?  Executive privilege?  Funding of public media?  Corporate sponsorship of essential research?  Diminished regulation? Fewer investigative journalists?  Depository library cutbacks?  The list of goes on…There are lots of back burners with many simmering pots.  What is certain is that all of the decisions will be cloaked in the sacred robes of cost savings and reduced government.

Confession: Just yesterday I read about the demise of the Minnesota News Council which has kept an eye on access for four decades – the fact caught my attention because that, the last I knew I was an active member of the MNC,  the first I knew that the plug had been pulled was when I read it on the back pages of the Star Tribune.  It seems I was not watching the heat being turned up under that pot.

Keeping an eye on access as a human right is not a solitary task.  Nor does it make the headlines, particularly in today’s media environment.  Still, it is increasingly obvious that authoritarian governments and corporate powers operate on the absolute premise that information, that quiet underpinning of freedom, is “precious and powerful.”   For some access to information is a threat to be quashed and manipulated.  For me access to information is a human right to be tended with care, celebrated with gusto.