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Richmond becomes ‘Human Rights City’

on December 1, 2009

After years of high crime and memorable environmental mishaps, Richmond is a city understandably wary of distinctions.

But now it has one to boast about: Human Rights City.

A resolution passed unanimously by the City Council in early November declared Richmond a “Human Rights City,” establishing the 60-plus-year-old United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “guiding principles” in local governance, according to a city release.

“The idea of declaring Richmond a Human Rights City was about adopting the (United Nations) declaration as a guiding principle and really making a commitment to setting human rights as a priority,” said Vivien Feyer, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission.

Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, who voted with a unanimous City Council in favor of adopting the declaration, said that while the council action was no statement of policy, affirming its sentiments may have some symbolic impact.

“Certainly laws, particularly civil rights laws, have more impact” on human rights, Viramontes said. “But this is something our city should stand for, particularly in light of some very uncivil behavior.”

The council resolution was the culmination of months of planning and negotiations within the Human Relations Commissions, whose seven members brought the proposal to council on Nov. 3.

Commission member Vivien Feyer, right, discusses the need for the city to observe the 61st anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.

Commission member Vivien Feyer, right, discusses the need for the city to observe the 61st anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. (Photo by Robert Rogers)

Feyer, who joined the commission in June, said she was first inspired to help Richmond join the ranks of Human Rights Cities when she heard of the efforts of Shulamith Koenig, president of the People’s Movement for Human Rights Education. Koenig is the recipient of the 2003 United Nations Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Field of Human Rights, an award whose past winners include Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

Koenig has helped more than a dozen cities worldwide adopt the declaration and become Human Rights Cities.

“I became interested in this global movement, and I got in contact with (Koenig),” Feyer said. “She’s very committed to working on local levels with people to further the understanding of human rights.”

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, three years after the conclusion of WWII. Members of the Commission on Human Rights, a body within the United Nations that drafted the document, included former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Among the rights enumerated in the declaration are the right to work, the right to an education and the right to be free of discrimination.

Richmond becomes the third city in the United States to adopt the declaration and declare itself a “Human Rights City,” Feyer said. Washington D.C. passed a similar resolution in December 2008, followed by Carborro, N.C. in April.

The city adopted the entire text of the 30-article document and its preamble as a guiding principle, save for a handful of instances in which words such as “mankind” were changed to more gender-neutral terms, Feyer said.

At its Nov. 23 meeting, the Human Relations Commission decided unanimously to observe Dec. 10, the 61st anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations’ declaration, by visiting two local spots frequented by day laborers. The early-morning event will be the commission’s first street-level action in support of the city’s new designation.

Commission members plan to deliver hot breakfasts, coffee and bilingual literature to day laborers congregating at a Home Depot store and Labor Ready, a private employment center, both on San Pablo Avenue.

“I think this will be a good way to start,” said Commission Chair Kathleen Sullivan.

The human rights specified in the historic document have yet to be realized in all of Richmond’s neighborhoods. Unemployment in the city stands at more than 18 percent, according to city reports–well above state and national averages. Under the strain of reduced revenues, funding for everything from schools to the local Fire Department has been cut. About one in five residents in the city subsists below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.

And street crime continues to undermine the right to life and personal security, enumerated in Article 3 of the declaration. As of Nov. 20, 47 people have been slain this year, about one in four of them children. None of the killings generated as much attention as the Oct. 24 rape of a 16-year-old girl during an after-school activity on Richmond High School’s campus, a crime which drew national headlines.

“We really need to make a commitment that the people are going to come first, especially amidst funding crises,” Feyer said. “We are never going to overlook the fundamental rights of the people.”

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