Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute Testifies at City Council on Need to Strengthen the New York City Commission on Human Rights
Contact: Erin Foley Smith, phone: 212.854.8364, email: [email protected]
New York, March 3, 2015 – The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute testified today before the New York City Council regarding the ways that human rights principles can strengthen the work of the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR), including through ensuring adequate resources to support the Commission’s broad mandate.
Erin Smith, a staff attorney with the Institute's Human Rights in the U.S. Project, joined an array of advocates speaking about the need to strengthen the Commission. New York City has one of the strongest civil rights laws in the nation—designed to protect New Yorkers from discrimination on the job, in their homes, and in places of public accommodation—and the NYCCHR is the primary body responsible for enforcing the city’s civil rights law. Yet, Smith says, “The Commission does not currently have the resources it needs to adequately protect the civil and human rights of New Yorkers.”
In November 2014, Mayor de Blasio appointed Carmelyn Malalis to serve as the head of the Commission, along with eight new Commissioners. The new leadership took office last month, and, at today’s hearing, Commissioner Malalis testified about her vision for the Commission. Advocates provided recommendations to inform the Commission's enforcement, monitoring, and education efforts.
In her testimony, Commissioner Malalis recognized the Commission’s critical role in safeguarding the rights and dignity of all people in New York. She declared her intent to not only improve enforcement but also to strengthen community relations through a multi-pronged strategy of outreach, education, and training.
“We were encouraged by Commissioner Malalis’s remarks at today’s hearing, including her focus on ensuring the Commission is proactive rather than merely reactive,” said JoAnn Kamuf Ward, associate director of the Human Rights Institute’s Human Rights in the U.S. project and lecturer-in-law at Columbia. “We were particularly pleased by her emphasis on the core human rights principles of transparency, accountability, and stakeholder participation.”
Smith’s testimony highlighted two key recommendations that would help the Commission reach its full potential: integrating a human rights-based approach in the Commission’s work and ensuring the City provides adequate resources to the Commission. “By using human rights principles, state and local agencies across the U.S. are proactively addressing discrimination, in addition to responding to individual complaints,” said Smith. “We recommend that the New York City Human Rights Commission consider using these approaches, as well, in order to strengthen its work and better protect vulnerable New Yorkers.”
Smith’s testimony also analyzed how the NYCCHR's budget and staffing compare to civil and human rights agencies in several peer cities, highlighting that the NYCCHR currently has the lowest budget and the fewest staff on a per resident basis. “Obviously these numbers are concerning. New Yorkers face serious discrimination, and the New York City Commission lacks the resources to fully address the problem. Even worse, this burden falls disproportionately on already vulnerable communities. Human rights principles underscore the need for human rights institutions to have the resources necessary to both promote and protect human rights," Smith noted, joining other advocates in calls for increased resources for the Commission.
The Human Rights Institute is part of the New York City Human Rights Law Working Group, a coalition of legal services and civil and human rights non-profit organizations that seeks to improve the effectiveness of the NYCCHR.
The Human Rights Institute serves as the focal point of international human rights education, scholarship, and practice at Columbia Law School. The Institute’s Human Rights in the U.S. project builds the capacity of state and local governments to use human rights in their daily work and to ensure U.S. compliance with international human rights standards, in partnership with state and local actors and advocates. Follow us on Twitter: @CLShumanrights