Waiting to Exhale — Human Rights

We have been holding our breath for four years as American democracy, rule of law and human rights have been battered. Here are some of the ways we can build back better.

The incoming Administration should appoint a Director of Human Rights as an ex-officio member of the Cabinet to ensure that human rights are given due consideration in all policy decisions. While the U.S. promotes human rights abroad, those considerations are too often overridden by supposed economic, foreign relations or security imperatives. Human rights needs a voice at the table and the backing of our leaders.

Human rights and civil rights need to be given priority at home as well. Issues of justice and equality are too often approached piecemeal because agencies focus on their missions (housing, education, commerce…), not the broader, cross-cutting issues of equity. A civil rights czar could help coordinate whole-of-government responses to critical issues of justice and rights. An Administration could perhaps accomplish the goal by naming the head of the Civil Rights Commission to the Cabinet ex-officio and ensure that the budget and mandate of the Commission are aligned with the task required.

Decades of enriching the ultra-wealthy has gutted the middle class and likewise the human rights of millions of Americans. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 of our leading civil and human rights organizations, has published a list of human rights priorities for the Biden Harris Administration that deserve the highest consideration. Among them, pass a comprehensive pro-worker labor law that empowers unions; ensure anti-discrimination protections for all working people; raise the minimum wage; and strengthen job safety and health laws, to name a few.

While these are civil and human rights issues, these are all core economic issues. America will be better and stronger with good jobs that pay well and support the health and safety of their workers and their families. Better wages will increase demand for goods and services lifting all boats, unlike the virga of trickle down.

The Biden Harris Administration should also fight corruption that threatens our democracy and is inextricably linked to the subjugation of rights. The fight must be multi-pronged. Congress should establish an anti-corruption Commission to advise on laws, regulations and actions to address past corruption and prevent future lawlessness. Congressional committees should simultaneously conduct oversight hearings to root out corruption. Agency Inspectors General should conduct comprehensive reviews of agency actions and report their findings. U.S. attorneys investigating fraud and other crimes should continue without political interference. The Attorney General should appoint special counsels where necessary. Congress should pass the For the People Act to end partisan gerrymandering and reduce the influence of money in politics, and the Protecting our Democracy Act to prevent future Presidential abuses of power.

These critical efforts will only be possible if we find a way to reduce the temperature of politics and public discourse. Armed thugs that are, unconscionably, threatening our public health workers, Governors and other public officials should be arrested and tried, and held up as examples that the rule of law governs civilized society, not mob rule. Congress should pass the Fairness Doctrine requiring opinion media (network, cable and social) to provide equal time to opposite points of view. The Federal Communications Commission must crack down on media entities that peddle in lies and conspiracies. Congress may have to provide new authorities to rein in the disinformation era.

There is hope for common ground. A group called Voice of the People found that Americans with strongly divergent political views still agreed on taxes, the budget, health care and immigration reform. A bipartisan group of House Representatives identified 97 reforms to help Congress can work better and develop a culture of compromise and comity. After four years of unprecedented attacks on our democracy, with a gleeful Russia watching from afar, I would like to exhale. I think we all would.

Photo by Léa Dubedout on Unsplash

C. Dixon Osburn is a noted advocate for domestic and international human rights and security.

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