The Local Turn in U.S. Human Rights: Introduction to the Special Symposium Issue

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Risa E. Kaufman is the Director of U.S. Human Rights at the Center for Reproductive Rights. From 2008 to 2017, she was the Executive Director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute.

JoAnn Kamuf Ward is the Director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute’s Human Rights in the U.S. Project.

Human rights in the United States are at an inflection point, and the orientation is local. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and renewed threats to human rights and democratic institutions, state and local officials and human rights advocates are working locally to resist harmful federal policies and to fill the gaps in federal civil rights enforcement. Indeed, safeguarding and securing human rights at the local level has more urgency than ever. Near daily protests and demonstrations, which consistently invoke human rights language and framing, illustrate the breadth of rights at stake.1 Human rights were front and center at the women’s marches that erupted across the country in January of 2017. Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives have embedded human rights into their approaches. And recent efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have sparked public support for healthcare as a human right across the United States.

As rights protections are increasingly threatened, many states and local governments are stepping in, often echoing support for human rights. For example, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges grounded her call to reject the repeal of the ACA in human rights, stating that it “is immoral that anyone in America would be without affordable access to healthcare, which is [one of] the most basic of human rights.” The National League of Cities has noted the negative human rights implications of state laws that preempt these progressive local policies.

Of course, state and local governments have long played an important role in bringing the United States into compliance with its international human rights commitments. But in recent years, the role of local governments has taken on greater significance, as an increasing number of state, city, county, and municipal level officials embrace a proactive human rights approach, develop new tools and techniques to address local problems, and influence local, state, and national policy. Lawyers and advocates, too, are initiating, encouraging, and promoting innovative efforts to “bring human rights home.” This special issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review explores the localization of human rights in greater depth.

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