Eugene, Oregon, and Local Implementation of Human Rights

Eugene, Oregon, is a city of 160,000 people located in the northwestern United States.  For over two decades the City of Eugene has had a highly active Human Rights Commission composed of community volunteers appointed by the Mayor and City Council.  The Commission’s duties are established by local ordinance. These duties include ascertaining the state of civil and human rights of persons and groups in the community, and making recommendations to the Mayor and City Council to advance civil and human rights protections.  Historically, the principal focus of the Commission has been on civil rights, particularly prevention of discrimination in employment, housing, and access to City services.

 Since 2007, however, with the approval of the Mayor and City Council, the Commission has explored ways in which City government can implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and act in accordance with fundamental human rights principles in all its operations.  The Commission has taken a lead role in beginning to move Eugene toward the goal of becoming a “Human Rights City.”  It has worked in partnership with both City of Eugene staff and the larger Eugene community on ways to better address not only civil rights, but the full range of universal human rights.

 The major challenge in Eugene has been the need for human rights learning.  Most people in the United States are very aware of and knowledgeable about their civil rights, but far fewer are knowledgeable about the full range of universal human rights, human rights treaties and instruments, and how the human rights framework relates to them. The Eugene Human Rights Commission has found both City government and the larger community to be extremely receptive to, supportive of, and inspired by its Human Rights City activities.

 The Commission reached out to local community groups and worked with them to help form the Community Coalition for Advancement of Human Rights (CCAHR), an informal network of social justice groups and their allies.  In partnership with the CCAHR and other local groups and institutions, the Commission has presented and sponsored community forums and events focusing on local implementation of human rights, including panels and workshops, annual International Human Rights Day Celebrations, and a hugely successful Human Rights Community Summit, held in April 2010, that attracted participants from across Eugene and adjacent communities.

 Commissioners have also made many public presentations on the “Human Rights City” concept to groups across the Eugene community, discussed the concept on local radio stations, and published guest articles in the local newspaper.  News of Eugene’s human rights implementation activities is communicated regularly on a special web site, www.humanrightscity.com, which includes announcements, photos, videos, and resource lists. These activities, taken together, have informed Eugene community members about their human rights and directly engaged hundreds of people in conversations about Eugene’s becoming a “Human Rights City.”

 The Commission has examined and followed initiatives undertaken toward human rights implementation in other U.S. municipalities such as San Francisco and New York City.  Commissioners and City staff have attended nationally-convened trainings on the topic of human rights implementation at the local community level.  In February 2011, with the support of the City manager, the Commission brought trainers to Eugene to work with community members serving on City-appointed commissions and boards, as well as City executives, department heads, and key City staff, on ideas for implementing the human rights framework in their work.

 Eugene city government staff  have incorporated reference to the full range of civil, political, social, economic and cultural human rights into the Social Equity section of their Triple-Bottom-Line Tool, a set of questions and guidelines that is being used by City government to help it make program and budget decisions.  City staff also included an action item in the City’s five-year Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan (DESP) that calls for implementation of the human rights framework across all six City departments (e.g., Planning and Development, Library and Recreational Services, Police). The City staff have established an internal Equity and Human Rights Board made up of representatives of all six City departments to oversee the DESP as a whole. Two Human Rights Commissioners sit on this board as liaisons and to work with City staff on ideas for human rights implementation.

 From April to September 2011 a five-month collaborative project carried out jointly by the Commission and City staff solicited community input bearing on revising the twenty-year-old City human rights ordinance, which primarily focused on discrimination against protected classes.  This input led the Commission to propose changing the existing ordinance to reflect the work being done by the Commission to encourage the City and community to address the full range of human rights.  The City Council held a public hearing on the proposed ordinance changes and unanimously passed them one week later on Nov. 28, 2011.  The Eugene City Code establishing the Human Rights Commission now references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and explicitly empowers  the Commission to encourage implementation of the full range of human rights in the City organization and the broader community.

 The Human Rights Commission's 2012-13 work plan, which was unanimously approved by the City Council on November 16, 2011, is organized around use of the human rights framework in community education, outreach, and collaborations with the City and community on issues of local community concern:  homelessness, problems facing youth, integrating immigrants into the community, and addressing hate/bias/systemic racism.  The latter work plan task includes assessing how well the situation in Eugene conforms to the principles and standards of the International Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination.

 In April 2011 the City of Eugene was represented by a commissioner at the 2011 World Human Rights Cities Forum held in Gwangju, South Korea, both to share Eugene's experiences and to learn about local human rights implementation efforts underway internationally.  In August 2011 a commissioner and the City of Eugene Equity and Human Rights Manager were invited to speak at a plenary session and workshop held during the annual national conference of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies, which posts information about the human rights work in Eugene on its web site.  

 The Human Rights Commission has established a relationship with leaders of the U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of over 300 social justice, civil rights, and civil liberties groups whose goal is the implementation of international human rights principles and standards within the United States.  In December 2011, a commissioner was invited to co-facilitate a workshop on state and local human rights implementation at the national conference of the U.S. Human Rights Network in Los Angeles.

 The Commission is also represented on the State and Local Government Coordinating Subcommittee of the national Human Rights at Home Campaign.  The Campaign is seeking U.S. government support and assistance to facilitate state and local human rights implementation of federal human rights treaty obligations in the United States.  

 The Commission’s efforts over the last five years have drawn highly positive national attention to the City of Eugene as a municipal leader in addressing local human rights implementation in the United States.  Its work has been highlighted in reports by the U.S. Human Rights Fund, the Columbia University Law School Human Rights Institute, and the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies (IAOHRA). Eugene’s exploration of human rights implementation has also been the subject of presentations at sessions of national conferences convened by the U.S. Human Rights Network, the University of Connecticut Human Rights Institute, the Human Rights Section of the American Sociological Association, and IAOHRA.