As members of civil society, we have all come to ask ourselves at some point: is there anything we can do about human rights protection?
This thought ruminated in Mexican-American Yale student Joaquin Lara Midkiff’s ‘23 mind for years, as he sat on the sidelines while his loved ones were immersed in the Chicano Movement. The Chicano Movement began in the 1900s and advocates on behalf of Mexicans on a broad list of issues, including the restoration of land grants, farm workers’ rights, voting, and political ethnic stereotypes in America. Lara Midkiff reminisced about a childhood where his father often came home exhausted after hours fighting for the labor rights of undocumented farmworkers; close friends marched and organized in the capital on behalf of others; he saw his friends behind bars for standing up for others. As a first-generation American born and raised in the US with Spanish as his first language, and familial roots of an indigenous community in the south of Mexico, Lara Midkiff felt “baptized into the movement.”
As he grew up, however, Lara Midkiff took charge of his activist legacy and began fighting for the issues to which his background had attuned him. He also joined the Chicano movement and spent years in Oregon advocating for the rights of the undocumented at the state capital alongside his community.
Lara Midkiff’s personal experiences are only one factor in fueling his passion for human rights and its international implications. “I am a binational person, so a lot of who I am and my history and my personal identity revolves around American countries. It always was a focus, to be binational, to be back and forth, and occupying both of those worlds,” Lara Midkiff explained in an interview with The Politic. Now, at Yale, he pursues a double major with Latin American studies, is the head of the Americas Desk for YRIS, a YCC senator, and is involved in multitudes of political groups around campus.
Lara Midkiff shared that his second and most important reason for caring about human rights is a moral universal sentiment. “I think fundamentally my politics and consideration of others centers around their humanity,” he stressed.
This past month with the Biden administration announcing that they plan to re-engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) after Trump decided to give up the US’ seat in 2018, the question of human rights has re-emerged and taken on controversy and complexity. Alongside the rest of the nation and world, Lara Midkiff considered both sides of the coin on what this act means and whether the re-engagement will lead to human rights protection.
The controversy surrounding the decision to rejoin comes down to differing opinions on what purpose the UNHRC serves and for whom. When AP referred to the UNHRC as a “political football” between Democrats and Republicans, it underscored the political significance of this decision domestically. However, in the eyes of Lara Midkiff and many experts, this lens seems unproductive, considering the focus of the UNHRC and human rights in itself is beyond the US and our national politics.
“The United Nations has long been one of the most prominent international organizations promoting human rights advancements,” shared Jean Krasno. Krasno is a professor, lecturer, and expert on human rights and international relations. Since her time at Yale (1995-1997) through the UN Oral History Project, Krasno has been passionate about examining UN reform, risk reduction, and peaceful means to resolve conflict. In agreement with Lara Midkiff, her expertise has led her to believe UNHRC serves as a “moral compass” for the world.
The Human Rights Commission (later renamed the UN Human Rights Council) is one of the oldest bodies in the UN, created at the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1946. The first chair elected by the General Assembly, Eleanor Roosevelt, was tasked with leading the drafting of the UDHR—a document outlining what is regarded by many today as the global standard of the rights and freedoms of all human beings.
According to Krasno, after Roosevelt stepped down as chair, the commission was “corrupted,” and controversies began swarming the UNHRC. UNHRC member countries differed on which of the rights in the UDHR they wanted to enforce, and the nature of who was elected became divisive to nonmember nations looking in from the outside.
The problem with this process is that nations began to get nominated because of their wealth rather than because of a good human rights track record. What is worse, in Krasno’s opinion, is that such countries began joining the council to prevent investigations against themselves. Many people today have sworn off the UNHRC because the current 47 members include China, Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia.
During his presidency, former President Trump accused the UNHRC of being overly critical of Israel while ignoring flagrant human rights abuses by member states of the council such as China and Russia. He cited this as the reason for choosing to leave the council.
In the aftermath of Trump’s exit, the US needs to wait until January 22 of 2021 to be able to be nominated within its geopolitical regional group and then be elected by the UN General Assembly to serve as a voting member again. The Biden administration has expressed that until then, as a non-voting observer, “we will be there, talk to everybody, and put pressure,” shared Krasno.
While Trump had a reason for exit, it is arguably not productive to progress human rights protection. “I don’t criticize Trump for, in a sense, taking a stand against the work of the council, but withdrawing doesn’t help,” shared Krasno. “If you withdraw, you cannot lead.” This perspective is popular among other experts including James Silk and Charles Hill. Silk is a professor of human rights at Yale Law School where he directs the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, and also founded and teaches the Undergraduate Human Rights Program at Yale College. Charles Hill is a diplomat in residence and a Yale senior lecturer and Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy.
As for Lara Midkiff, while he agrees with the latter part of Krasno’s statement, he also regards Trump’s actions as counterproductive because “when the US is a stakeholder and voice at the table, conversations become serious.” He continued that since the US does have so much “disproportionate authority, especially with the UN as a medium,” Lara Midkiff believes that the Biden administration deciding to re-engage with the UNHRC should not be a politically or morally controversial topic.
Midkiff, while sympathetic to those against the motion to re-engage, shared that there is a misplaced precedent with this argument and that countries who are in the UNHRC have to be, from both a practicality and functionality standpoint. His philosophy is “if you’re part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.” In that sense, countries such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, or China—for better or for worse—need to be a part of the human rights conversation. Otherwise, “if we just isolate them or negate their participation, how can they be part of the solution?” Lara Midkiff asked.
Canvassing for CAUSA to locally empower undocumented Latino citizens, Lara Midkiff has learned a great deal about the value of creating a conversation between people with polarized viewpoints to further a cause. As much as he finds heartwarming memories of people sympathetic to his cause speaking about “how do I learn more?” “how do I join you?” or “what are you guys doing?”, Lara Midkiff shared he cherishes most of his conversations with those at a first look who were against his cause. It was going from people telling him “what are you doing here?” “do you even speak English?” and “go back to your country!” to a more moderated and empathetic response to his plight by the end of a conversation that motivated him to continue his work.
To Lara Midkiff, a similar mentality should be taken when different nations of various human rights backgrounds come together in the UNHRC. “It was being able to connect with the people who were so diametrically opposed to what you were fighting for and they ended up coming closer to your position. It was not about beating them over the head with a club, rather, it was about reasoning with them and reaching their humanity in ways that they hadn’t done before,” explained Midkiff.
As Krasno shared, the fact that all members of the council need to agree on a resolution for it to happen is a major roadblock to human rights resolutions being passed by the UNHRC. Krasno agreed that the UNHRC has no enforcement power, but emphasized that by allowing the global civil society to see which countries are abiding by human rights standards, the UNHRC can impact real-world decisions. All of the experts who shared their experiences and views also told The Politic that the UNHRC’s role in international affairs and human rights is nevertheless critical.
Krasno shared that students who take her course on the UN always come in with doubts, yet after discussion and learning about what they can do, they understand that even in times where the US is not directly involved with the UN (such as in the past four years), it is never “irrelevant.”
Though the UNHRC may not have the concrete power to implement human rights solutions on a structural level in individual countries, it serves as a forum to create discussion within the council and inspire further discourse around the world about human rights. To Silk, “discourse on human rights” is equivalent to “commitment to human rights” and is not just symbolic. He continued to explain that “even China now, at least in its rhetoric, acknowledges that it has obligations internationally, to respect the rights of its own people. China may not observe them, but it at least feels a need to acknowledge them.” In his experience teaching the next generation of world citizens and leaders, Silk finds it’s important to find a middle ground of idealism and realism when dealing with human rights, and especially since the UNHRC’s political election process makes it easy to criticize, the importance to critique our own views and be critical of critiques in order to find the substance and solution to human rights problems.
Lara Midkiff, though not in Silk’s class, shared a likewise observation amongst the views of our generation. “Criticism of the US is so important because it fails all the time (historically it has failed in really amazing horrible ways especially with Latin America or Indo-China) but my experience is that a lot of people our age are very irate (as they ought to be) and the criticism is such that they want to “topple institutions,” emphasized Lara Midkiff. “I think to be productive and make an impact is that the ire in the efforts and advocacy and arguments need to always be about how to better institutions and not how to topple them.”
While people care deeply about human and civic rights and are more connected to such issues through social media, “we are quick to judge, and through judging, we show that we care about these issues.” He continued, “As someone who has worked in civil rights, I know very well the power of not going through government means—but at the same time, I really believe in engaging with institutions, restructuring and reshaping them as they demand but always engage nevertheless.”
Midkiff’s criticism of our generation is especially true in the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. Krasno observed that after Trump’s exit, we lost ground in terms of human rights rule-breaking, and regaining this trust is our tough yet necessary current battle.
Silk stressed that although “enormous harm has been done to the perception of the United States as an actor in the world by the disdain for human rights of the Trump administration,” he finds hope in the past year experiencing a global pandemic. From the pandemic, he hopes the world has highlighted the importance of empathy in solving collective dilemmas as one and shown us how on all core levels our well-being is interdependent on that of others. “I think, if the pandemic has made us realize those things, then we need to try harder to make institutions like the Human Rights Council better at achieving its goals,” said Silk.
As Lara Midkiff stressed to The Politic, “The UN is an ideal and it’s a pursuit, and that pursuit is always worthwhile. Because everyone deserves respect and to be elevated because they’re humans.”
The UNHRC may have members who are controversial, but the council serves ultimately the people who look up to it. Political polarization is prominent, but should not be. Even within our bounds of American “political football,” we must believe the rights ensuring “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should be universal. And we should act on this common human cause for progress.
All the interviewees believe that the most dangerous and immediate challenges and hence solutions in our world are increasingly globalized—from the Paris Agreement for environmental protection, World Health Organization for health protection, and UNHRC for overall human rights protection (all of which Trump pulled out of). “You cannot be a fully realized, active, person without thinking internationally these days. The days where you could be insular and think only for yourself and your nation, are gone,” believes Lara Midkiff.
In the direction the world is heading, in order to have healthy functioning societies, we need to set aside our criticisms and re-engage and raise the importance of these internationally-focused organizations and missions. Human rights have become a critical and creative tool to solve issues such as broad scope human crises such as climate change and wealth inequality, both within and between societies, stressed Silk. As such, it is our role in a civic global society to support the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with the UNHRC.
The Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage with the UNHRC has not created a buzz in the eyes of the people, according to Hill. Mostly those with a predisposition to care about the UN or international politics have joined the discussion. However, forums exist to create discussion, but that is only the first step to creating change. To solidify the importance of human rights, to create a buzz on a large scale, and to turn it into a political movement is not the UNHRC’s responsibility. That responsibility to be the heart of political movements belongs to Lara Midkiff, the next generation of leaders, and it belongs to us.
The world is not perfect and will never be perfect as we will never all agree. However, we must agree that the protection of human rights is a universal problem that requires a solution. While critiques and controversies keep our values in check, we cannot let our internal divisions take away the place of collaborative solutions. Onwards, we must fight for our values, for human rights, every day. Today, controversies must be turned into conversation and give us the promise of the US taking a stand for human rights by taking a seat in the UNHRC.