“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works.”
These observations by Eleanor Roosevelt, made some 80 years ago, might be seen as the motivating force driving the work of the volunteer board, and the very part-time staff, of the Barnstable County Human Rights Advisory Commission. Each member of the commission represents a link between people who may have had their fundamental rights violated and potential resolutions.
You might wonder whether there’s a need for human rights protections here on Cape Cod. Are human rights ever at risk here? The answer very likely depends on your color, your gender or sexual preference, your primary language, your income level, and where you live.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” Alongside the Cape’s evolving demographics — recent census data show that significant numbers of people from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe now call this place home and one in 20 of us are foreign-born — we are facing economic challenges that, history tells us, can lead to human rights abuses.
The commission has received more than a dozen human rights-related complaints this year. Often, they are interwoven with housing insecurity and employment relationships. Most common are housing discrimination, neighbor-to-neighbor disputes, harassment by employers or the police, abuse of power or bullying, and imminent homelessness.
Hate crimes and racial discrimination are less frequently reported, although one case in Provincetown was referred to the police and has been on the Orleans court docket for over a year. One referral via the attorney general’s office led to a cash award with triple damages against a housing management company.
The commission is building a database for logging these issues so that trends in human rights violations can be noticed by county leaders as they emerge.
Complaints are taken online or by phone. Because some who need to reach the commission face language difficulties or the fear of loss of work or retaliation, they may be reluctant to interact with authorities. Often, they also lack experience with any grievance process or legal remedies. So, the commission’s process does not directly involve the legal system or the police. As an advisory body, the commission can’t mediate or give legal advice, but it does hear people out and make referrals as appropriate.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need human rights organizations. Here in this small place in our less-than-perfect world, we do.
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].