By Richard Muhammad

Activists highlight U.S. human rights violations in Katrina failures

(KIN) – Uncle Sam may want to spread democracy around the globe, but human rights violations suffered by Blacks, immigrants and the poor, during and after Hurricane Katrina, are haunting him.

“The actual television images that people saw around the world shocked so many people,” said Chandra Bhatnagar, of the ACLU Human Rights Working Group. “Activists from developing countries, poor countries, contacted me or said things to me about, ‘We can’t believe this happened in your country. We can’t believe this is how the U.S. government treats its own citizens or its own residents.’ ”


Mr. Bhatnagar was one of several human rights activists at a Mar. 16 forum at the United Nations Plaza in New York where the U.S. government was accused of violating a UN treaty on human rights in its responses and lack of responses in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The session coincided with a two-week meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee. It featured presentations from the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and the United States Human Rights Network.

The United States is a signatory on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Mr. Bhatnagar noted. Since the U.S. signed the treaty, one of few accords the Bush administration is bound to, the UN Human Rights Committee will review U.S. compliance at a July hearing in Geneva, Switzerland, he explained. The U.S. has already submitted it a report–the first in a decade–lauding its success, said the attorney.

But, he added, the review process allows groups outside the government to raise concerns, give the UN committee questions to ask U.S. representative and offer “shadow reports” on governments’ failures to meet treaty obligations. The UN Human Rights Committee can then tell the respective government where it needs to improve. If the U.S. was found in violation of the treaty or international law, it would be a powerful organizing and communication tool, as well as support for other legal action, he said.

The people languishing on rooftops, crowded into the Superdome without any food, medicine or water, evacuees herded onto planes bound for God knows where, the lives lost, and blunder after blunder by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were more than tragic episodes, the groups said.

“The biggest problem in New Orleans was the failure of the levee system, which was supposed to be maintained by the government,” said Malcolm Suber, an organizer with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, who was displaced by the flooding. The failure to maintain the levees resulted in the violation of peoples’ basic right to live, he argued.

Without levee repair, grocery stores, electricity in Black neighborhoods, schools still closed and Whites plotting to grab political power with Black residents scattered in over 40 states, the result is “gentrification by neglect,” he said. Without government support, Blacks are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to come back to New Orleans, he said.

“Hurricane Katrina only highlighted existing human rights violations that had been happening all along. Any time that along the Mississippi Gulf Coast people are still living in tents because they can’t get their homes rebuilt or there is no housing for them, it’s just really shameful. It’s like we are living in a Third World country in the south,” said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

Six months after Katrina, Blacks who lived on the Gulf Coast are locked out of the decision-making process when it comes to rebuilding and New Orleans survivors are being denied jobs, housing and services, and seeing their children criminalized in the public school system, according to Ms. Lambright.

“I’m really worried about the students that are in Mississippi who have left one traumatic situation and who are in a really unfamiliar, unfriendly territory in the school systems and the communities that they are living in now,” she explained.

The UN treaty obligated the U.S. to take specific action to protect Katrina evacuees, said Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the Atlanta-based U.S. Human Rights Network. His organization is running the Katrina Internally Displaced Persons Human Rights Project, which includes a petition and educational campaign.

The evacuees fit the definition of internally displaced persons and the government had a responsibility to avoid displacement, he said. Since it failed, displaced persons must be given compensation and material support throughout their ordeal, not just short-term humanitarian assistance, he said. They also have a right to housing, special programs for women and children, protection from discrimination, medical care and the right to return, he outlined.

Just as internally displaced persons hit by the Asian tsunami are due continued support for years, Hurricane Katrina survivors must be seen in the same light, he maintained.

“This is the first example of a displaced population in any northern country. There is no other example like this in any advanced capitalist country,” Mr. Baraka further observed.

One reason for dispersing people was to avoid the imagery of massive displacement seen in places like the Sudan or Liberia, he added, stressing that the human rights efforts aren’t just symbolic, but begin to put things in a different context that allow for different solutions and pressure points since the U.S. administration is concerned about international public opinion.

“They do care, because part of their process of being able to exercise power is being able to persuade, to be able to project a certain kind of image.

“While we understand the UN is not going to solve our problems,” Mr. Baraka insisted, “we recognize we have to utilize every instrument open to us. We have to confront the U.S. in every arena and every level of government.”