Using Human Rights to Support your Activism

On August 21, 2013, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and the US Human Rights Network (USHRN) convened a panel at the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) in New York City focused on the importance of US based activists using international human rights mechanisms in their advocacy. The aim of the panel was to encourage participants to better understand the ways in which human rights tools can be used at the national level to hold the US government accountable to human rights at home. Our goal was to get US based NGOs to see the importance of international mechanisms in their work more broadly. Panelists spoke on a range of issues and made connections to international mechanisms that will be reviewing the US ‘s human rights progress in the next three years, which includes the United Nations (UN) International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

First, James Turpin, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), provided a brief introduction to the UN treaty body and UPR system. He stressed the importance of civil society engagement with UN international mechanisms to ensure that the information the UN receives is diverse. In discussing gender equality and women’s empowerment, he called on women’s rights organizations to not only exclusively look at the women’s rights convention, but also include the nine existing treaty bodies which are all women’s rights treaty bodies. In essence, women’s rights organizations should not silo or limit themselves to working with only one treaty, but instead use all the treaties to hold their government accountable to women’s rights and the human rights principle of non-discrimination and equality is universal.

Next, Ejim Dike, USHRN, shared an overview of how the network uses international human rights mechanisms. She spoke about the impact of voting restrictions on human rights in the United States and the importance of elevating human rights standards since the government is not compliant with international human rights law. Ms. Dike mentioned that the US is at a critical moment and as serious human rights regressions continue civil society and the social justice movement must take on the role of enforcing human rights standards. Even if you are employed, poverty lurks, she argued, referring to the fact that if you make minimum wage you are still under the poverty line. One example she provided as bringing human rights home is the US domestic workers movement. They have successfully engaged both at the local and international levels, gaining significant progress both in the legal and policy spheres.

Chandra Bhatnagar, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), began by stating human rights are rights entitled to all peoples and the basic minimum which the government must comply to is the human right. Once a treaty is ratified it should become supreme law of the land and it is the responsibility of civil society to submit reports to the UN on various issues to correct the record. Mr. Bhatnagar shared a case that he was involved with in which the ACLU along with others filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights charging that the US violated its universal human rights obligations by failing to protect millions of undocumented workers from exploitation and discrimination in the workplace. These types of legal exercises not only can engender justice, but also result in mainstream media attention and movement building.

Katrina Anderson and Amanda McRae, both from CRR, spoke to the importance of using international mechanisms to hold the US government accountable to principles of non-discrimination and equality. One example Ms. Anderson provided was that it’s not enough to only address unsafe abortions when black women are dying at four times the rate of white women in the US. The CRR uses the CERD to address health through the lens of discrimination and make linkages between sexual and reproductive health and rights and poverty. Ms. McRae emphasized the importance of intersectionality in her work with both the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

UN international human rights mechanisms are tools that civil society can engage with to hold their governments accountable for human rights, whether that be access to affordable and quality healthcare or ending discriminatory practices that target people of color. The United Nations can help to open entry points for civil society engagement with the state and call upon friendly governments to ensure that the US is not eroding human rights at home.

Here are some useful resources:

by Margot Baruch, Economic and Social Rights Program Coordinator, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University


CWGL’s tribute to our dear friend Sunila Abeysekera

The Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) mourns the loss of our beloved colleague whose strong political voice, smiling face, generosity of spirit, forceful determination and commitment have accompanied us throughout our history of working for human rights and justice. Sunila was a courageous feminist and human rights activist from Sri Lanka who played a major leadership role not only in South Asia, but also in the global women’s and human rights movements. She lived a life on the forefront of many social movements, fighting relentlessly for justice and human rights—for women and on behalf of all those who experienced identity-based discrimination, persecution and marginalization, whether on the basis of race-ethnicity, class, gender or sexual orientation. For more information on Sunila’s work, visit

CWGL has counted Sunila not only as a longtime colleague, but also as one our guiding lights in addressing women’s human rights. She offered her advice and time to us generously over many years. She brought her unique and powerful presence to many of our endeavors from the Global Campaign in Vienna and the Human Rights Commission/Council in Geneva to leadership institutes and strategic conversations held at Rutgers University in New Jersey as well as with the Women Living Under Muslim Laws network in Istanbul and Lagos.

In 2003, she was a visiting global associate at CWGL. During that time, she participated in our commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. She also helped shape our work on women human rights defenders, imperialism, the religious right and women’s rights. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Conference, her spirit will be with us. We will miss Sunila profoundly, but the impact of her work and vision accompanies us forever.

Charlotte Bunch, Radhika Balakrishnan and the CWGL team