International human rights network intervenes in Detroit water shutoffs case

International human rights network intervenes in case challenging large-scale disconnection of water supply to tens of thousands of low-income residents in Detroit

 

New York. February 9, 2015. The International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), a global network of over 220 groups and 50 individual advocates from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights, has requested leave from the U.S. District Court to be recognized as amicus curiae[1] in the case of Lyda et al. v. City of Detroit[2]in support of residents challenging the City of Detroit’s decision to cut off water supply to thousands of households unable to pay their bills.

As detailed in the plaintiffs’ complaint, by the end of August 2014 the City of Detroit had disconnected approximately 30,000 households of low-income persons and persons living in poverty from the municipal water supply and sewerage service, leaving them without access to drinking water and water for toilets and basic sanitation.

ESCR-Net, through its amicus brief, seeks to bolster the plaintiffs’ legal challenge by highlighting that the disconnections for inability to pay violate a range of legal obligations applicable to the U.S. under key international human rights treaties.

At the same time, ESCR-Net contends that Detroit’s City Charter, which includes a Declaration of Rights recognizing rights to water, sanitation and decent housing, must be respected. Pursuant to long-established principles of both U.S. law and international law, relevant domestic law must be interpreted consistently with treaty obligations.

Chris Grove, Executive Director of ESCR-Net, said, “Access to justice is required for violations of human rights, and we welcome the opportunity to assist the U.S. District Court with material relevant to consideration of the issues at stake. These issues impact the health, security and human dignity of thousands of Detroit residents and implicate our vision of a just society.”

“A number of human rights are arguably violated by these disconnections, including rights to water, sanitation, adequate housing, health, life, freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment, and non-discrimination. The international human rights obligations of the U.S. also apply to the City of Detroit, and these obligations require that denial of access to water be reversed immediately,” he added.

The City of Detroit’s water disconnection policy has shocked the international community and has prompted, among other reactions, the visit of two United Nations Special Procedures human rights experts to assess the situation in October 2014.[3] Despite the onset of winter, local groups report that the City has continued water shut-offs at the homes of low-income families, the elderly, and the infirmed.

It is hoped that the application of international human rights law will help the plaintiffs achieve a just and effective remedy, including renewed access to water and an end to any further disconnections.

A copy of the amicus curiae brief is available at http://bit.ly/1ESJLdW

 

About ESCR-Net

ESCR-Net is the largest global network of human rights organizations, grassroots groups and advocates working to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all. Please visit http://www.escr-net.org

This action is being led by ESCR-Net Strategic Litigation Working Group members Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia), the Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (SRAC), and the Social Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI).

For information regarding this amicus intervention, contact:

For information on the situation in Detroit or to speak with residents, contact:

Marian Kramer (313-471-9241), Maureen Taylor (313-729-5558) or Sylvia Orduño (734-846-9465). Office Tel. +1-313-964-0618


[1] An amicus curiae (or ‘friend of the Court’) is a person or organization who, although not a party to a case, is granted leave to submit material to the Court relevant to the disposition of the case and not already brought to the Court’s attention by the parties.

[2]Lyda et al. v. City of Detroit, Case No. 2:15-cv-10038-BAF-RSW, before Hon. Bernard A. Friedman in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.

Activist Delegation Provides MCHR Board Members Global Perspective, Moving Accounts of Human Rights Challenges in Middle East and Africa

Detroit, Mich. —

On January 23, 2015, MCHR board members met with a U.S. State Department-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Program delegation from the Middle East and North Africa exploring Human and Civil Rights Advocacy and Awareness.

The delegation consisted of 16 individuals from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. They met with board members at the International Institute in Detroit. Prior to their visit here, the delegation had made stops in Alabama and Washington D.C. and will finish their U.S. tour in Arizona.

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The State Department had specific objectives for the delegation throughout its U.S. tour and meeting with the MCHR Board, including:

*Examining the historical context of human rights advocacy in the U.S.

*Illustrating the influence of human and civil rights activists on policy at national, state and local levels.

*Exploring the role and structure of associations, NGOs and religious groups in advancing civil rights and equal opportunity.

*Analyzing a variety of human rights concerns related to critical issues, including disability rights, freedom of press/religion/speech, access to education and due process.

The delegation consisted of 12 men and 4 women, most of them appearing to be in their 30s and early 40s, visiting the U.S. for the first time. The group included human rights attorneys, NGO executives, government employees, labor and refugee experts and advocates for women, children and the impoverished. All experienced, dedicated and enthusiastic activists working in a region characterized by some of most extreme and catastrophic human rights violations imaginable.

Through simultaneous translation, MCHR board members Cary McGehee, Abayomi Azikiwe, Kim Redigan, Eric Hood, Dorothy Aldridge, Saeed Khan, Marge Sears and Lila Cabell of the People’s Water Board addressed the delegation providing a brief overview of MCHR. This included: Our role in the community, history of MCHR, current issues/activities (cited participation/support for the People’s Water Board), regular events (film series, lectures, annual dinner), special events (Freedom Tours), and our use of publicity, the Internet and social media to promote human rights and MCHR. The delegates listened closely to each speaker and most took notes.

Then, through the interpreter, we listened for nearly two hours as individual members of the visiting delegation provided first-hand accounts of their work and challenges. They spoke to a number of serious (some shocking) human rights violations and situations in their regions, including:

*An Egyptian attorney pointed-out that Arab Spring has brought turmoil with its promise and that regular Egyptian citizens are not being represented in the government, which has become more oppressive (no matter who is in power). He deals with many freedom of the press/free speech issues and says the government has been arresting and illegally detaining more journalists and known activists. He said that this trip to the U.S. may very likely result in his own arrest upon returning to Egypt.

*A human rights activist and law professor from Mauritania and a teacher from Yemen said their countries still deal with a legacy of slavery and indentured servitude, long entrenched in their cultures. In their two countries, they said, there are over 3 million black people in slavery.  For far too many in the West, these accounts of slavery in the year 2015 are simply incredulous.

*An attorney with the Palestinian Bar Association’s legal clinic said she and others have filed over 100 lawsuits against the Israeli government for the wrongful deaths and injuries of Palestinians and the destruction of homes and property during Israel’s latest military action. She said the cases must be brought in Israeli courts, where it is not only almost impossible to prevail, but equally difficult to actually be cleared to enter Israel and file a lawsuit. To date, three Palestinian plaintiffs have prevailed.

*Another attorney from Palestine talked about other possible actions, including the need to put international pressure on the Israeli government to change its Palestinian policies. This led to a discussion on the various BDS initiatives being undertaken by U.S. and European groups. She said that U.S. support of this type is much needed and
appreciated.

*An attorney from Jordan expressed deep concern about the negative impact of terrorist actions on Islam and all Muslims. He says Islamaphobia has worsened as religious terrorist violence continues and that politics has hijacked Islam.

*A number of delegates also described serious water availability and water rights issues in their countries. Problems include both water scarcity and competing political and corporate interests vying for control of the resource, trumping the basic water rights of the people. Privatization interests and plans complicate the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, as well.

As the delegation’s members related their efforts to address the many extreme human
rights violations in their region, each also expressed thanks and gratitude to MCHR for meeting with them and listening to their stories. Each delegation member who spoke also said that any kind of help or counsel would be much appreciated.

The human rights issues that these activists face are on a vast scale — and often
appear to be overwhelming, nearly hopeless situations. But these people will go back
home continue their efforts.

MCHR thanks the delegation for sharing their stories with us. Their visit and narrative
clearly remind us – again — that the human rights struggle is universal and ongoing.
As we consider the significance of their visit, the question for us should be: What can
MCHR do to assist and support these extraordinary activists?

Aftermath of the UN visit to Detroit regarding water and housing

UPDATE (Feb 7, 2015): Check out this video documenting the recent UN visit regarding the water shutoffs in Detroit, produced by one of the UN special rapporteurs that visited Detroit last October.

10/20/14:

Two special rapporteurs from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke at a press conference yesterday, at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel in Detroit, about the need for all levels of government to step up in their defense of human rights.

PIC_0708De Albuquerque and Farha clapping in support of residents’ testimony at the Sunday town hall meeting. (Photo: Dr. Jose’ Cuello)

 

Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteurs on the rights to safe drinking water/sanitation and adequate housing, respectively, both spoke to multiple press organizations, concerned civil service groups, and citizens about the continuing water shutoffs in Detroit and how they also affect the housing situation of citizens in the city. Both condemned the city’s actions as a violation of human rights, stating that the shutoffs primarily affect low-income African-Americans. Furthermore, without water there are increased health risks that can easily be avoided by not shutting off water access.

The UN rapporteurs also stated that the United States is bound by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that humans have the right to an adequate standard of living. This includes municipalities that are under emergency management, as Detroit has been.

“If the city does not have the capacity, then others have to step in because the US government, at the federal level, undertook certain human rights obligations…” stated de Albuquerque.

The rapporteurs stated that for every dollar spent on allowing access to clean water, municipalities save $9 in health and productivity costs.

During their visit to Detroit, the UN rapporteurs found a level of retrogression not seen in their visits to other localities facing similar problems with water and housing. They also stated that nobody in the city is asking for free water- citizens understand they must contribute to the water system, but the water and sanitation costs are rapidly rising and wildly fluctuating. This is due to rising rates passed on to customers to deal with aging infrastructure, declining population levels in the city, and rising unemployment.

There was also a high number of instances in which residents had paid their water bills but were shut off anyways and had no way to contest their cases.

“We think that this lack of information and the lack of due process, in the way some of the disconnections have been taken, leads to fear,” stated de Albuquerque.

The issue of industrial/commercial sites that are delinquent and haven’t had their water shut off was also raised during the question session following the press conference. The UN rapporteurs stated that other municipalities that are poorer than Detroit have risen from similar situations by charging commercial/heavy users more for their increased water consumption.

“The way I view democracy… it is a precious and fragile thing,” stated Farha. “…You need to figure out how you’re going to protect democracy.”

Farha and de Albuquerque both spoke to the need of civil service organizations such as the People’s Water Board to continue their work fighting shutoffs and abuses within the city. They also want to continue communications between themselves and the organizations involved with the human rights struggles in the city and the region.

The press conference took place after two days of the UN rapporteurs surveying the affected areas and meeting with citizens and civil service organizations.

For more on the press conference and to see all of the UN rapporteurs’ recommendations for local, state, and federal government and the full text of their press statement, click here.

Below is the video of the entire press conference, courtesy of Michigan Coalition for Human Rights board member Dr. Jose Cuello.

– See more at: http://disinfo.com/2014/10/two-rapporteurs-un-visit-detroit-restore-access-water/#sthash.ZeWOTHso.dpuf

Below is the video of the entire press conference, courtesy of MCHR board member Dr. Jose’ Cuello.

Live-tweets from the various events that the UN rapporteurs took place in this weekend can be viewed using the hashtag #UNinDetroit.

MCHR is a member of the People’s Water Board who were one of the main organizations responsible for organizing the UN visit to Detroit.

Kim Redigan: An Open Letter to My Students After My Arrest for Disorderly Conduct

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Dear students:

Some of you have contacted me after seeing news of my arrest for a nonviolent action around the water shutoffs here in Detroit. While I am touched by your concern, I implore you to reserve your support for those being affected by the shutoffs and your own generation, which, unless things change, is on track to inherit a commodified world in which beauty, nature, life itself will be sold off to the lowest corporate bidder, an affront to all that is good, decent and human.

The action in which I and several others engaged was only a small gesture of loving resistance, a humble offering of our own bodies against the dehumanizing and democracy-crushing effects of life under Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager. Pope Paul VI once said the world needs witnesses more than it needs teachers, and in times like these, to be a teacher may mean to move the classroom to the street in order to bear witness to the grave injustices that are harming our neighbors.

The glaring disparity between the rich and the poor in Detroit and the breathtaking rapidity with which that gap is widening is downright biblical. With its adult sandboxes, whimsically painted street-side pianos, and upscale lofts, downtown Detroit has become a glittering playground for the pioneers of the “new” Detroit while blocks away, children are unable to brush their teeth or flush their toilets.

To put it plainly, this is sin. “I was thirsty, and you … shut off my water.”

While I know that for some of you, the image of one of your teachers being led off in handcuffs is jarring, you should not be surprised. As discussed in class, we plant our feet on the good soil of a biblical tradition and body of social teachings that demand justice and a preferential option for the poor. If we fail to incarnate these teachings, they remain dry as dust. How can we study the prophets, the Gospels, the encyclicals, and the saints and not act? As it has been said, “To know and not to do is not yet to know.”

After witnessing home after home being shut off in the early-morning hours where contractors mark their work with a bold streak of blue spray paint (an action that suggests a sort of reverse Passover ritual), after listening to stories of people trying to stave off the inevitable (life is always complicated when money is tight), and after stuffing towelettes into baggies for elders to use as bathing kits, I had to act.

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When I joined others in blocking the contracted shutoff trucks from leaving that morning, I acted as a mother, teacher and follower of Jesus, conscious of the privilege I carry, a privilege not afforded those who are so often casualties of a soul-numbing legal system that discriminates against the poor and people of color.

In light of those whose very existence in the face of brutal and unrelenting injustice is a daily act of resistance, our action was a mere crumb, a tiny ripple, an embarrassingly small gesture of solidarity. A way of trying to bring some decency and order to a disordered situation.

Ironically, we were arrested for disorderly conduct, an interesting charge for a teacher whose daily life of bells, schedules, and respectful classroom conversation is predicated on good order. There is another kind of order, however, that throughout history has been used to keep the boots of brutes and empires on the backs of people, especially the poor and vulnerable.

This was the so-called order of the day that prompted the prophets to raise their voices to the high heavens over the ruthless exploitation of widows and orphans and the oppressive order of the day that compelled Jesus to turn over tables in the temple.

And this is the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking order of the day here in Detroit, where tens of thousands of people are having their water shut off despite the protestations of local citizens, nurses from around the country, the United Nations, and people of goodwill from around the globe.

No, if anything is disorderly, it is an imposed system of governance that is disenfranchising citizens (especially in African-American communities), uprooting the poor and working class, privatizing the commons, and denying babies and elders the human right to water.

In biblical terms, the disorder of the present moment can best be understood as an aggressive assault by the powers and principalities, rapacious (dare I say demonic) economic and social forces that are crushing the poor in gross violation of the law of love articulated in Matthew 25 and the beatitudes.

This is a time for both lamentation and action. A time to wage love, as the mother of Detroit’s water movement, Charity Hicks, counseled, with all the courage and compassion we can muster.

There is much more I want to say, but when I see you in class in a few weeks, we will discuss these things.

You are scholars — do the research and then take to heart the words of Pope Francis who rails against the idolatry of money, the “new tyranny,” as he calls it.

When we get back to school, we will sit quietly with Francis’ question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” One of the first things we’ll do upon our return is discuss the core principle of Catholic social teaching — the dignity of the human person — something worth pondering in times such as these.

For now, turn your attention to those around you and your own future. Know that there are elders in the community who have given their lives to this struggle for a very long time and come to this sacred work with hard-fought wisdom. Listen to them. Respect them. Learn from them. Stand in solidarity with the good and graced work already going on.

Study the historical context of the present moment, do social analysis in concert with others, and then decide where to place your feet.

Jesus chose to stand with the least among us. Where will you choose to stand?

What will you do to bring good order to a disordered world that needs you to wage love with everything you’ve got?

As published August 6th, 2014 in National Catholic Reporter

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Kim Redigan is the Vice-Chair of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, Secretary of
Pax Christi Michigan’s State Council, and on the Coordinating Committee of the Detroit Area
Peace and Justice Network, where she represents Meta Peace Team (formerly Michigan Peace
Team), and the Detroit Catholic Worker. Kim spends most of her time working with Meta Peace
Team where she volunteers as a nonviolence trainer and serves on domestic and international
peace teams, including teams in the West Bank and Egypt. Kim has a Master’s degree in
Religious Studies from the University of Detroit Mercy, a B.A. in English from the University of
Michigan-Dearborn, and a Master of Arts in Social Justice from Marygrove College. Over the
past nine years, Kim has taught courses in World Religions, Catholic Social Teaching, and
Spiritual Biography at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Prior to that, Kim taught
English for ten years at Holy Redeemer High School in southwest Detroit. She is also involved
in Women in Black – Detroit and represents Pax Christi as a Jobs with Justice affiliate. Kim and
her husband Matt are parents of four children.