Lunchtime Seminar with Eric Tars, Senior Attorney at National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

On Tuesday April 26, 2016, Eric Tars, Senior Attorney at National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), visited HRI and presented at our final lunchtime seminar for the year. Tars talked about incorporating international human rights standards in the U.S. and provided a “human rights toolkit” for political advocacy (available to download here). While Tars focused on the criminalization of homelessness, he explained that this toolkit is applicable to any human rights issue.

In my conversation with Tars before the event, he said his father, who lived as a refugee during World War II, is his inspiration for engaging in human rights work. “I am grateful for the privilege I’ve been given and feel the need to give back, to do what I can for those that are like my father.” To help homeless individuals and those struggling with poverty, Tars advocates using international human rights standards to change policy in the United States. However, even within international human rights law, homelessness is often treated as the “right to non-discrimination in housing,” rather than “the right to housing.” Tars reflected further: “Even with the laws [we currently have], we don’t have substantive equality.” To this end, Tars stressed that more emphasis needs to be put on the positive obligations of the state, rather than state abstention from committing human rights violations. He defined housing as a human right, not as giving handouts to people, but rather “creat[ing] conditions by which the right to housing can be enjoyed.”

In an effort to implement these international standards, Tars praised the NLCHP and other coalition organizations for having achieved a new international norm identifying the criminalization of homelessness as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture. In light of this development, in the fall of 2016, the NLCHP plans to launch a national and trans-local campaign called “Housing not Handcuffs.” The campaign will advocate for the elimination of criminalization of housing-related laws and require states to create more housing options in poor communities. The campaign emphasizes that whether or not one looks at it from an economic, moral, or legal perspective, providing housing is a much better option than addressing homelessness by criminalizing it. The campaign platform is grounded in the lived experience of homeless people, and integrates survey findings and interviews on the effects of criminalization policies on people’s livelihoods. The campaign aims to highlight the economic benefits of “taking criminalization laws off the table.”

The Housing not Handcuffs campaign is an example of how to put the human rights toolkit for political advocacy to work. Starting with envisioning your work as human rights work, training people involved in your movement, then using human rights standards domestically and internationally to hold your government accountable, this ten-step process provides guidelines for making human rights work for all social justice issues.  In addition, Tars emphasizes the importance of documenting and sharing your successes along the way as a means of networking and building communities of support across issues and coalitions. Since many of the social justice issues that human rights organizations focus on are interconnected in some way, we need strong cross-issue networks to facilitate the protection and fulfillment of the right to housing—and all other human rights.

With this, Tars repeatedly highlighted the translatability of the human rights framework both theoretically and professionally. The human rights framework stands as a tool of empowerment for all of us, and it can benefit individuals looking to get involved in social justice or human rights work professionally. In reflecting on his own career path, Tars offered a piece of advice to our human rights students here at UConn: “I’m not at Amnesty International, I’m not at Human Rights Watch: … you can bring your human rights toolkit to any agency you want, and that’s an asset…. If you bring it into your work with you, then that’s [going to] be something that sets you apart.” Not only is human rights education translatable, but it can make you more effective at whatever line of work you choose to go into. You don’t need to have a job with “human rights” in your title. You bring human rights to the job. In bringing the human rights framework to practice, Tars said, “our default should not be ‘why include human rights framing’ and then trying to justify it, but ‘why not’ and only not do it if there’s a good reason not to.”