Members of Congress Join Rights Groups in Urging White House to Study Creating National Human Rights Institution

Nine members of Congress are joining a broad coalition of civil and human rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union in urging the Biden administration to establish a presidential commission to study the creation of a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) in the United States to monitor and promote human rights.

In letters sent to President Biden ahead of the second Summit for Democracy, the members of Congress and the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies (IAOHRA) stress the importance of a National Human Rights Institution to ensure the U.S. takes bold actions to strengthen American democracy by creating domestic human rights infrastructure that would help monitor and protect human rights at home. The ACLU also launched an action today urging activists and supporters to add their name to a petition calling on President Biden to act.

“The best way for the United States to lead on human rights is by the power of example,” said Rep. James P. McGovern. “President Biden has said it himself: the commitment to human rights begins at home. By establishing a presidential commission to explore creating a National Human Rights Institution for the U.S., the President will be taking an important, concrete step toward ensuring that we live up to the standards we expect of other countries. The U.S. must walk the walk on human rights – not just talk the talk.”

Democracies around the world — including key allies — have independent bodies dedicated to monitoring and promoting human rights. By establishing a NHRI, the U.S. would contribute to a widespread global practice of human rights compliance.

“While the U.S. has a long tradition of supporting human rights and democracy abroad, we have often failed to practice at home what we preach overseas and neglected to translate our own international commitments into domestic policy,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. “For too long, we’ve been a shameful outlier. A National Human Rights Institution would bring some much-needed structure and help bring the U.S. in line with international human rights norms and full compliance with ratified treaties. The time for action is now.”

The letter highlights different potential models for a NHRI, with functions that could include:

  • Promoting and monitoring the implementation of human rights obligations;
  • Interfacing with international human rights institutions;
  • Providing a public forum for the investigation of violations of human rights;
  • Creating a platform for recommendations to improve human rights compliance;
  • Establishing mechanisms to advise and inform legislative, judicial, and executive branches on human rights standards; and
  • Supporting and providing guidance to state and local human rights commissions.

“The United States should be a role model for protecting human rights, and that work starts here at home,” said Rep. Katie Porter. “A National Human Rights Institution will help us lead the world in promoting civil liberties and championing government accountability. I hope President Biden will use this opportunity to reaffirm our global commitments and rebuild our country’s reputation as a strong voice for universal human rights.”

“We urge you to take the opportunity of the Summit to announce your support for the establishment of a presidential commission to explore the creation of an NHRI in the United States. In the long run, an NHRI would reinforce and champion the Summit’s ‘vision of our world that is grounded in democratic values: transparent, responsive, and accountable governance; rule of law; and respect for human rights,’” the congressional letter reads.

“As our member agencies work to protect the rights and dignity of all persons, they are looking to the federal government for leadership and support,” said Dr. Alisa Warren, president of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies. “An NHRI would allow for unprecedented progress towards domestic implementation of our international human rights commitments and would bring human rights home to the U.S. Because establishing a national human rights institution is a task that will take time and require the input of numerous government actors, it is vitally important to begin taking significant steps towards this goal.”

In December, a large coalition of 85 civil society groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP, National Network to End Domestic Violence, International Indian Treaty Council, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the American Jewish Committee, called on the Biden administration to take action on a national human rights institution.

“The U.S. has an important role to play in promoting human rights around the world, but it must hold itself to the same standards it seeks to promote abroad,” said Lisa Borden, senior policy counsel with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the SPLC Action Fund. “The lack of a national human rights institution is an area in which the U.S. lags behind its allies and peers and is an obstacle to the fulfillment of human rights at home.”

The letter from members of Congress was signed by Reps. James McGovern, Eleanor Norton, Ilhan Omar, Katie Porter, Ayanna Pressley, Jamie Raskin, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Jill Tokuda.

The IAOHRA letter is here:

The ACLU’s petition is here:

Further information on national human rights institutions may be found in this report released last December by the UC Irvine School of Law International Justice Clinic.

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