Establish the proposed commission explicitly as a human rights commission, and enable it to be effective in this work with all that entails.
The City of Olympia has an opportunity to work to ensure all the rights of its residents. However, this opportunity is at risk of being lost without its explicit identification and incorporation in the city's to-be-determined social justice and equity commission. What started as a call for a human rights commission for the city has transitioned to a process for an institutional body that could potentially be diminished in its charge, goals, and authority for change. The body the city is considering should explicitly be a human rights commission in name and in purpose, and enabled to accomplish all that this entails.
The concept of human rights sprang forth from many societies and cultures over the millennia, but was given formal international recognition in wake of the atrocities of World War II, including, at the forefront, the Holocaust. In the years following the war, mention of human rights were interspersed in the text of the United Nations' charter and then, after a years-long drafting process, fleshed out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As Charles Malik, the Lebanese philosopher and diplomat who was one of the Declaration's major shepherds during its drafting and adoption by the United Nations, proclaimed at its introduction to the U.N. General Assembly, the importance of the Declaration was that:
"Thousands of minds and hands have helped in its formation. Every member of the United Nations has solemnly pledged itself to achieve respect for and observance of human rights. But, precisely what these rights are we were never told before, either in the Charter or in any other international instrument. This is the first time the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms are spelled out authoritatively and in precise detail. I now know what my government pledged itself to promote, achieve, and observe when I had the honor to sign the [UN Charter]. I can agitate against my government, and if she does not fulfill her pledge, I shall have and feel the moral support of the entire world." [From A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].
The Declaration, which was not legally binding, led to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Unlike the Declaration, these were treaties that were binding on the countries that ratified them, treaties with their own methods of enforcement. On the United States' part, it has ratified the ICCPR, albeit with many reservations that make particular provisions not binding, and has signed, but not ratified, the ICESCR.
These three documents form the foundation of our planet's international system of human rights, and these rights have undergone continual development and modes of implementation in the 70+ years since the advent of the Declaration in 1948, including through the creation of additional human rights treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ratified but also subject to reservations by the United States), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (signed but not ratified by the United States).
As indicated by the names of the covenants, these rights encompass civil and political rights--those we have traditionally understood in the United States to be rights, such as speech and association rights, the right to vote, and the right to nondiscrimination--but also other rights, known as economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to housing, the right to health, and the right to participate in the cultural life of one's community. Successive conventions drew on the concepts contained in the covenants to address their subject matter, and the covenants established official bodies who deepen the understanding of these treaties through interpretive "general comments." Beyond these official interpretations, there is much study, debate, and discussion building on the content of these treaties and the meaning for governments and their constituents.
The responsibility for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling these rights does not fall just to the federal government, but also to state and local governments. However, aside from some notable exceptions, such as Seattle or San Francisco (who have looked at the content of all human rights treaties, not just those ratified by the federal government), this is a moral imperative most political subdivisions have declined to meet wholesale, or they have done so in a toothless, conceptually haphazard manner.
For the local jurisdictions in the United States that have human rights commissions, most serve only as recognition bodies, educating individuals about the contents of human rights treaties, hosting events, and publishing resolutions, but not given institutional authority to accomplish much else. Those who are enabled to go further may also have their own problems, depending on whether their charge is allowed to permeate the city's operations. Others may focus only on civil rights (and do important work in this area), but are given the title of "human rights commission" despite excluding entire sets of rights from their purview. These examples should not dissuade the council from establishing a human rights commission, and instead serve as examples of the pitfalls to avoid.
A true human rights commission, enabled to examine past and significant proposed city policy, apply human rights principles, and recommend human rights-centered revisions, would be a major step toward Olympia being a city that recognizes the dignity of all residents and which takes concrete steps towards its fulfillment. Crucially, it would be able to go further than a more limited social justice and equity commission.
A human rights commission will be able to go further, first, because it provides a well-defined and understandable set of meanings and methods of thinking through policy problems in a people-first manner. A human rights framework, and a human rights lens, provides a readily available, morally authoritative way to work toward meeting and balancing the particular needs of all residents (with a focus on the most marginalized), combining the wisdom of our community with the wisdom of the world.
Take, for example, the idea of "progressive realization." Progressive realization is the understanding that governments do not have the resources to immediately achieve certain rights in the economic and social realm. Instead, governments must make efforts to realize these rights over time according to their resources, and, in periods of recession where a government's provision of the content of these rights may have to be reduced, must ensure this reduction is done in a manner that is temporary, proportional, and does not discriminate against marginalized groups. Such a concept is easily interpretable and applicable to the vagaries of government, including local government.
A human rights commission also recognizes that rights are indivisible, and that the failure to pay attention to some rights will lead to the failure of others. A focus on nondiscrimination will fail if, for example, the rights to housing, healthcare, and a clean and healthy environment are ignored. Not only is nondiscrimination a core part of those rights, but focusing on nondiscrimination purely as a civil rights matter leads to large policy gaps in working toward the prosperity of all. Even conceptions of civil rights that may understand these other rights to be under its umbrella are incomplete because they facially only look to the same provision, not the sufficient provision, of these rights for everyone, though some may implicitly look further.
Laudably, the process the city has taken for this commission has been a human rights process so far. By making affirmative efforts to reach out to marginalized community members to receive their input about the formation of the commission, the city has embodied the principles necessary to any human rights initiative. But its engagement with the whole field of human rights should not end here.
A human rights commission, or any other type of commission, will need resources, empowerment, and support by the city and the council to be effective. But a human rights commission, while working toward the same goals, would be able to go further than another formulation of the commission that does not fully and explicitly encompass human rights in its process and charge.
As the city council considers the creation of a body in this field, it will be a missed opportunity if it does not go with one that is as understandable, implementable, authoritative, and comprehensive as a human rights commission.