By Monique Harden & Nathalie Walker
If you’re wondering why our government still has no comprehensive rebuilding plan for New Orleans and Gulf Coast communities, and why residents and volunteers are shouldering the tremendous burden of restoring homes on their own, look no further than policymakers who shun fundamental human rights protection as “foreign law” that somehow undermines the American way of life.
A series of statements by influential U.S. officials, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Republican lawmakers, has made it clear that some conservatives do not want human rights laws that protect people in other countries to apply here. As a result, most Americans may not be aware of the protections guaranteed by international human rights standards.
During the 1990s, the United States government and the United Nations worked to solve the problem of large populations within a nation being forced to evacuate their communities as a result of natural or man-made disasters. Both understood that, unlike refugees who cross an international border, people who are displaced within their nation’s borders do not have the legal protections that benefit refugees.
The United States mobilized an international commitment to support such “internally displaced” people, which was formalized in the United Nations’ “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” in 1998. The guiding principles require governmental authorities to make every effort to prevent the conditions that cause people to evacuate from their communities. They also mandate that the government provide housing, medical care and education to internally displaced people.
In keeping with the United Nation’s guiding principles, our own State Department established the “Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons Policy” in October2004. This policy declares our government’s commitment to protect the human rights of internally displaced people in foreign countries. It lays out a plan of action for humanitarian assistance and long-term development that includes housing, health care, sanitation systems, financial assistance, home rebuilding, schools and the development of roads and other infrastructure.
However the commitments that our government makes to other countries under this policy are in no way reflected in the Gulf Coast recovery effort. So far, this has been a series of shocking decisions by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to evict displaced residents from temporary homes when they have no place else to go, and a piecemeal approach to rebuilding by the Louisiana Recovery Authority that provides grants that won’t be enough to repair the vast majority of damaged homes.
Is it too much to ask that the same care and commitment that our government gives to people who have lost their homes and communities in other parts of the world also be given to Americans?
Clearly, residents of our hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast deserve human rights protections just as much as the people living in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia.
While we should be proud of our government’s long history of protecting human rights abroad, we also should demand that it protect human rights at home.