U.S. ignores its own human rights crisis

December 13, 2006|By Jeffrey Buchanan

WASHINGTON -- This is Human Rights Week, an appropriate time to consider a strange situation: The United States, a leader on the issue of improving human rights after disasters around the world, is refusing to apply the same high standards to a serious human rights crisis here at home.

Hurricane Katrina - and the man-made crisis that followed - was a disaster unprecedented in the U.S. More than a million people were uprooted from their communities; about 300,000 from New Orleans alone are still displaced well over a year after the levees broke.

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

"There are instances of officials at all levels of government siding against repairing homes and restoring the lives of displaced people," Stephen Bradberry, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now head organizer in New Orleans, told me.

This idea is supported by the United Nations' "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement," the internationally approved framework to protect a person's human rights before, during and after being displaced by a humanitarian disaster.

The principles include the right to shelter, food, water, due process and equal justice, as well as the right to health, access to information and the right to vote and participate in local decisions about rebuilding. Under the principles, final responsibility for the human rights of displaced people in the United States falls to the federal government. It must create conditions allowing the displaced to voluntarily return and prevent them from being displaced longer than necessary.

The U.S. Agency for International Development endorses the principles and uses U.S. tax dollars to implement its framework in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, postwar Iraq and Colombia. Oddly, Bush administration officials over the summer told the U.N. Human Rights Committee that Americans displaced by Katrina - whom they evasively call "evacuees" rather than the legally correct "internally displaced persons" - do not deserve the rights extended under the principles. Legal scholars with the Institute for Southern Studies have found the federal government in violation of 16 of 30 guiding principles.

The U.S. government's failures to respond to Hurricane Katrina have been well-documented, but few realize the role the federal government has played in stopping the displaced from receiving the aid they need to pull their lives back together to return and rebuild.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency arbitrarily denied thousands of vulnerable, displaced families access to housing aid - until a federal judge ruled against the agency this month, describing FEMA's system for delivering aid as "Kafkaesque." FEMA has refused the judge's order to resume payments as it mounts a legal appeal, while many displaced people face evictions.

Thousands of families have been permanently evicted from New Orleans public housing by the city's U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development administrator, the Housing Authority of New Orleans. The authority plans to use relief funds to bulldoze 5,000 habitable apartments to develop mixed-income housing, with room for only 10 percent as many low-income people.

Displaced people scattered across 46 states have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and neighborhoods. FEMA refuses to use its knowledge about the whereabouts of the displaced to help them stay informed and participate with local authorities in decisions that will affect their families and communities.

Displaced homeowners remain unable to afford the repairs they need to return, even as $10.4 billion in federal aid to homeowners given to Louisiana has reached only 44 families.

In August, New Orleans was about to begin seizing the homes of displaced people who had not been able to afford to restore their property; federal authorities were silent about this unconstitutional abuse of property rights. Local advocates such as ACORN had to pressure the City Council and at the last minute reformed a local ordinance to protect the disadvantaged and to allow appeals.

The United States can still lead the world in human rights advocacy, but leadership must begin at home. The federal government needs to step up as the defender of human rights in this country. The incoming Congress must work with the president to make sure these kinds of abuses will not occur in future relief efforts. It is not too late to create policies that will empower the displaced to return and participate in rebuilding their lives, their communities and the entire Gulf Coast.

Jeffrey Buchanan is information officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial's Center for Human Rights, www.rfkmemorial.org.

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