According to a 2007 poll, Americans define human rights as the rights to equal opportunity, freedom from discrimination, a fair criminal justice system, and freedom from torture or abuse by law enforcement. Despite the current political wrangling over how to reform it, a majority of Americans even believe that access to health care is a human right.

There was a time when America’s leaders echoed those sentiments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt embraced them when he told Congress, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” And in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act, forming the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission was intended to conduct critical reviews of social needs and public policy – in essence, to be the conscience of the nation. Regardless of circumstances or leadership, the body was to operate as an independent voice for the broad range of civil rights issues facing the country.

Regrettably, since the 1980s the Commission has become a politicized body that, whether intentionally or not, too often reflects the ideological views of its appointees. Consider the recent examples that call into question the current Commission’s ability to fulfill its mission:

  • The Commission majority has taken a hostile position on the issue of school diversity
  • Some Commissioners have given testimony against renewing the Voting Rights Act
  • The Commission has endorsed voter identification requirements
  • The Commission allowed individual members to testify in Congress with the implication that the testimony was endorsed by the body as a whole

Now more than ever, the United States needs a human rights monitoring body that lives up to its mandate and to the ideals of this country. This body would be financed by the government but would operate as an independent, nonpartisan entity, providing expertise and oversight to ensure human rights progress in the United States. Congress and President Obama should support legislation to establish such a body by restructuring the existing U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, converting it into an effective U.S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights.

Approximately 50 national organizations have come together to form the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, and to call on President Obama and Congress to create such legislation. The coalition comprises major human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and social justice groups. Suggestions on how to revise the Commission include:

  • Changing the Commission structure from 8 to 7 appointees, nominated by Presidents and subject to confirmation from the Senate
  • Expanding the mandate of the Commission needs to include all civil and human rights issues, including issues of the LGBT community
  • Securing the Commission’s subpoena power as an essential ingredient for its effectiveness
  • Creating an additional investigative body to help with research and collection, as well as report preparation and submission
  • Expanding the jurisdiction of the Commission to look at international policies that have an impact on domestic issues, therefore broadening the goal of the Commission to cover human right

Expanding the Commission’s scope would strengthen its ability to address the human rights implications of major disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, as well as pressing issues Americans are facing today such as inequalities in access to housing, racial discrepancies in sentencing for drug offenses, education, jobs, and health care.

A nonpartisan and independent U.S. Commission on Civil and Human Rights would also support government, even while it enjoys more autonomy as an honest broker. It would be invaluable to our government’s efforts to meet its human rights treaty obligations under both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Expanding the Commission’s mandate would also enable it to better address the full range of contemporary issues, such as access to basic needs, freedom from all forms of discrimination, voting rights, protection against torture and other abuse, and a fair criminal justice system. It would also go a long way toward reaffirming, to Americans and to the rest of the world, what America truly stands for.


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