When it comes to basic human rights, there's surely some fundamentals that most can agree on. For instance: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security. Slavery, in all its forms, is patently illegal. Every person deserves to be treated equally.
As any high school student should know, these freedoms are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Fewer might know these rights are also packaged in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 1948 document that outlines these same liberties as a framework for international law.
Yet these indisputable human rights have somehow become a matter of dispute in Mountain View. The U.N. declaration has become Exhibit A in a curious local debate over whether Mountain View should formally declare itself a "human rights city." That title would mean adopting the U.N. declaration as official city policy.
In doing so, Mountain View would be part of what advocates describe as a growing national movement of cities burnishing their commitment to respecting the dignity of all people by adopting the U.N. declaration in its entirety. Yet some City Council members and skeptics have approached the idea with caution, expressing fears that the city could be committing itself wholesale to a foreign set of laws and liabilities.
The idea of a human rights city originated with the city's Human Relations Commission, a seven-member group of volunteers tasked with providing advice on how Mountain View can bolster its social tolerance and inclusiveness. After conducting a series of study sessions earlier this year, the advisory commission voted to bring the idea to the City Council with the recommendation to sign the U.N. human rights declaration into law. The council reviewed the proposal at a July 7 joint study session with the Human Relations Commission.
One of the main backers on the Human Relations Commission, Chairman Lucas Ramirez, explained that becoming a human rights city is more than a symbolic gesture or a "feel good" exercise. He and his colleagues want to use the action as a springboard to promote diversity, outreach and transparency in local government. In that spirit, one idea would be for city staff to analyze the human rights impacts on actions brought before the council, he said.
"We would be voluntarily committing ourselves to advancing those rights," Ramirez explained. "It's an ambitious goal to completely revise the way the city reviews any item before making a decision."
The discussion came before the City Council for the first time last week in a study session in which the idea received a mixed response. Multiple council members admitted some degree of confusion over what they were being asked to approve. Council members Chris Clark and Pat Showalter explained they weren't entirely sure what the ramifications would be if they signed off on the idea. If the city wanted to promote social goals, becoming a human rights city might not be the best way to do it, Clark demurred.
"What are the legal implications of adopting these resolutions?" he asked. "If someone thinks that we passed an ordinance that conflicts with the (U.N. declaration), can they challenge it?"
City staff and experts in attendance gave assurances that the U.N. declaration would be nonbinding and would instead operate as a set of guiding principles. The state and federal constitutions would still take precedence, they said. Nevertheless, Community Resources Manager Kim Castro admitted the full implications hadn't been fully analyzed yet and council members would need to decide what approach they wanted to take.
The proposed action reflects a larger trend of human rights becoming a bigger concern at the local government level as well as in U.S. foreign policy dealings, said William Armaline, human rights director at the San Jose State University Department of Justice Studies. He described the significance of being a human rights city as framing the "context" to guide the city in future decision-making.
"At the local level, when a municipality passes a resolution to become a human rights city, (it is) similarly making a public statement concerning the spirit and intention of the (U.N. declaration)," Armaline wrote in an email. "In itself, such a resolution does not in any way undercut or supersede existing law."
In that regard, Mountain View had some examples to follow. Seven other U.S. cities have already declared themselves human rights cities, including the East Bay city of Richmond, Seattle and Eugene, Ore. In general, most cities have signed the U.N. declaration as a way to project their commitment to serving the community after some type of civil-rights violation spurred a public dialogue.
That kind of event hasn't occurred in Mountain View, Mayor John McAlister pointed out. Since local residents already had their freedoms enshrined in U.S. laws, formally adopting the U.N. declaration seems like a redundant gesture, he said.
"I haven't seen any incident where rights were taken away from anybody," he said. "I think you already have the tools to do what you want, but I haven't heard anything to say this would give us rights that we don't already have."
Other opponents perceived the U.N. declaration as a way to snooker Mountain View into adopting certain social policies.
"Basically, this is the U.N. agenda for socialism," said Councilman John Inks, making it clear he wouldn't be supporting the human rights declaration. He seized on one section of the declaration -- Article 29 -- stipulating that "everyone has duties to the community," as a warning that the document was really a guise to impose a political ideology on Mountain View.
That position was further stoked when local attorney Gary Wesley pointed out that the human rights language in the city's staff report had different wording from the original 1948 U.N. version, including the addition of protections for a person's sexual orientation and immigration status.
City staff later admitted they had mistakenly used the wrong language by including an updated working draft provided by an outside agency. Staff declined to say which agency provided the working draft.
A string of public speakers at the meeting encouraged the council to support the idea. But they and council members wholeheartedly in support of the human rights effort were unable to convince opponents of its merits.
Mountain View has no shortage of issues that involve human right concerns, such as a housing shortage and gentrification, said Councilman Ken Rosenberg. Shelter should also be seen as a human right, he said.
"This is bold; this is something where we take a stand as the government of Mountain View," Rosenberg said. "The idea that we'd put the rights and dignity of our residents forward should mean something. We might over time make better decisions for our citizenry."
The Human Relations Commission will continue to analyze the idea of making Mountain View a human rights city. The council urged the group to study what kind of impacts the decision would bring. The issue is expected to be brought back to the council sometime next year.