The writer is the human rights learning associate at the American Friends Service Committee.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
These words are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document codifying the inherent rights all humans possess simply by virtue of their humanity.
In 2008, the District became the first Human Rights City in the United States. A “Human Rights City” is a municipality that considers the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948 — as a guide when crafting policies, priorities and programs. The historic declaration made by the D.C. Council was the result of hard work by local organizations, led by the American Friends Service Committee, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the UDHR and to ensure that all D.C. students and residents have an understanding of human rights principles.
Despite the District’s pioneer role in an ever-expanding network of human rights cities, and its stated commitment to human rights principles, the city still has a long way to go in achieving the declaration’s promise.
The declaration was not accompanied by an accountability mechanism at the governmental level. To fill this gap, the American Friends Service Committee’s Human Rights City Steering Committee has produced a regular report evaluating the city’s progress, the “State of Human Rights in the District of Columbia as a Human Rights City.” In February, the Steering Committee shared its 2017 report with the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
As in previous years, there remain huge deficits in District policies addressing human rights violations. The District continues to have a higher income inequality than any state in the country, and poverty rates east of the Anacostia River are more than three times greater than those found elsewhere in the city. Unemployment rates in the District have not returned to pre-recession levels, while the city’s black-white unemployment gap has grown since 2007.
More than 70 years after the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 10 years after the Human Rights City resolution, the report identified human rights violations across nine practice areas, including poverty reduction and income inequality; the welfare of children; access to affordable housing and ending homelessness; public education; health and environmental justice; religious discrimination; and service workers at D.C. universities.
While these violations negatively affect all residents, the District’s youths are disproportionately affected. In school year 2016-2017, 77 percent of D.C. Public Schools students were categorized as economically disadvantaged. The number of D.C. families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has declined by more than 20 percent since 1996, adjusting for inflation. And DCPS was ranked by WalletHub at the bottom — No. 112 of 112 — of cities with the least efficient spending on education in 2016.
Many youths in the District today have lived the entirety of their lives within a Human Rights City, yet many remain unaware of the city’s commitment to these principles, despite the importance of human rights education within the 2008 resolution.
Since publication of the report, an important victory has been achieved. A Human Rights elective course has been added to the DCPS social-studies course catalogue, available to schedule in the 2018-2019 school year. This addition to the curriculum will engage youths in discussions about human rights and empower D.C.’s younger generation to advocate for themselves and their communities.
Although the D.C. Council’s unanimous passage of the D.C. Human Rights City resolution in 2008 was an important step toward creating a city in which everyone’s human rights are respected, we still have a long way to go, as this report makes clear.
We hope the city will take steps to address pervasive and persistent rights violations, building upon previous victories. Meanwhile, the city’s human rights champions will continue working to mobilize D.C. residents, especially youths, to demand a secure city where all are truly born free and live equal.