Only Human – Op-Ed on the National Significance of Vermont’s Human Rights Successes

What do Vermont's recent human rights breakthroughs on health care and budget policy mean in a national context? Judith Levine comments in Seven Days, a Vermont magazine.

[…W]hat’s most remarkable about both the health care law and the people-first budget is their implicit rejection of some allegedly unique Vermont strength. What makes them radical is their acknowledgment that Vermonters are human. For this, we have the Vermont Workers’ Center to thank. Its Healthcare Is a Human Right and The People’s Budget campaigns, and the laws they secured, are grounded explicitly and unapologetically in the principles of human rights.

This is a first for Vermont. It may be a first for America.

The human-rights doctrine upholds the idea that the state must ensure everyone’s survival. But that’s not all: That right to survival derives from an inherent and universal human dignity. Citizen or exile, Christian or atheist, woman or man, saint or murderer — you get human rights simply by being born Homo sapiens. You don’t have to earn them. You can’t even buy them. And governments are responsible for realizing them. They’re practically un-American.

In fact, unlike other countries, America has never guaranteed its citizens material security. The Creator-endowed rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence left unaddressed the problem of those without property (or those who were property) or the means to pursue happiness.

After World World II, the U.S. reiterated its disinclination to protect the economic welfare of its people. It ratified the United Nations’ founding human-rights document, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But when the institution got around to giving the declaration the force of international law a couple of decades later, Washington balked. Cold War ideologies had divided the document’s enumerated human rights and freedoms into two categories — civil and economic — and, accordingly, two legally binding covenants.

The U.S. was on board with the first, protecting civil and political rights. But the second went too far. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights does not just pledge signatories to ensure adequate food, clothing and shelter to those who can’t get them on their own; it requires states to protect the means to a dignified life, such as the rights to work under decent conditions, including “rest and leisure, including reasonable limitations of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” The covenant also recognizes “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” — and enjoins governments to create the conditions to make that right real.

Communism! Jimmy Carter signed both covenants, but Congress has never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The signature barks assent to the agreement, but without ratification, the law cannot bite the signer that violates it.

Demands for rights both civil and economic (including the now-unimaginable right to welfare) enjoyed a brief heyday in the ’60s and then vanished. In the 1990s, as people all over the world, from peasants to prime ministers, became fluent in human rights, most Americans still had not heard of them. Human rights? What’s that, something from the French Revolution?

Most recently, conservatives have elevated America’s failure to take care of its own to a positive value. You remember that GOP candidates’ debate in Tampa, Fla., where Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul whether society should let an uninsured sick person die? Well, socialists would expect the government to pick up the slack for the slacker, said Paul scornfully, stopping short of saying the guy should die (the audience did that for him). But he said this: “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.” Loud applause.

Given this history, American progressives, including some in Vermont’s health care reform coalition, have shied away from pressing for human rights as a political strategy. But, as director James Haslam tells it, the Vermont Workers’ Center had an inkling the idea would inspire. In the summer of 2008, a survey of thousands of Vermonters proved the organization right: 95 percent of respondents said they believed health care is a human right.

When legislators were invited in 2009 to hear constituents relate their health care nightmares, many ended up agreeing that every human is entitled to care when illness strikes. When a last-minute amendment was inserted into the health care reform bill, excluding undocumented migrants from access, health care and migrants’ advocates pulled out the human rights principle of universality — “Universal = Everyone,” read one demonstrator’s sign. Within days, lawmakers removed the clause.

And on May 26, 2011, when Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the law, he declared health care “a right and not a privilege.” The budget language also includes all five internationally recognized principles of human rights: universality, equity, accountability, transparency and participation.

Haslam and his colleagues had realized that sufficient support for universal health care would not gather until grassroots emotion was stirred. That started to happen in force in 2008, when Healthcare Is a Human Right brought Vermonters out to testify publicly to the fear, pain and humiliation of being denied succor when their bodies needed it.

These witnesses cried — sometimes literally — for what Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union Address called the “freedom from want.” In the context of his Four Freedoms — the others being freedoms of expression and religion and freedom from fear — FDR linked freedom to need, need to rights, and rights to security.

By adopting the framework of human rights, Vermont may be leading America to make these same connections, says Anja Rudiger, a program director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative in New York who works closely with the Vermont Workers’ Center. “Human rights are not just about survival. They’re about dignity,” she says. “We are elevating needs by connecting [them] to rights. We don’t see it as rights being dragged down to needs.”

Vermonters finally won the rights we were born with by collectively attesting that we are not uniquely superhuman, not Vermont Strong. Gaining the means to maintain our inalienable dignity took an unashamed admission that we are all vulnerable: only human.

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