UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Law clinic to seek human rights for Katrina victims

– The federal government's response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster has fostered countless debates, continual reviews and reports and, for many people, ongoing frustration.

But in the view of two University of California, Berkeley, human rights experts - individuals who are no strangers to war-torn regions and human rights abuses in developing countries - the U.S. government's handling of the matter has been so poor that an international body needs to investigate.

Working with a coalition of national organizations and community groups based in cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Laurel Fletcher and Roxanna Altholz of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley's School of Law (Boalt Hall), have successfully petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to conduct a public hearing this Friday (March 3) on human rights and natural disasters - and the United States' response to Katrina.

The hearing will take place at 9 a.m. EST at the commission headquarters in Washington, D.C. A press conference will follow.

The commission is an independent human rights body established by the Organization of American States, an international organization comprised of countries in the Americas. Its central mission is to protect and promote human rights through on-site visits and hearings. Through these methods, the quasi-judicial organization successfully pressures countries to reform policies and practices.

It is the hope of UC Berkeley law school leaders and Gulf states community leaders that their testimony on Friday will convince the commission to conduct an on-site visit to the Gulf Coast region, formally investigate the matter, and publish a report articulating measures that federal, state and local governments should adopt to bring their practices in line with international human rights standards.

In all, 27 organizations are involved in this effort, including the Advancement Project, Equal Justice Center, Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, National Immigration Law Center, People's Hurricane Relief Oversight Coalition, and Southern Poverty Law Center.

The groups' central allegation is that the United States discriminated against low-income African American and immigrant communities during disaster planning and response - and is doing the same in the current phase of recovery.

For example, they say, most of the 100,000 people left behind in the rising flood waters in New Orleans were low-income African Americans who did not own cars and had to rely on public assistance that never came. Many immigrants did not learn of the danger until it was too late because hurricane warnings and evacuation orders were issued only in English. And, the group contends, many who survived the storm but lost everything never sought help because the U.S. government refused to issue an assurance that survivors seeking federal assistance would not be prosecuted for immigration violations.

The members of the groups who will testify before the commission on Friday are not only leaders of their local organizations but, as Gulf Coast residents themselves, victims of the hurricane.

They will share their first-person stories of what went wrong and what they believe continues to go wrong. For example, the community groups say the government is failing to consult with those displaced about their return and resettlement, as provided under international standards.

"The government failed to address our concerns, so we felt compelled to appeal to an international body," said Shana Griffin of Insight New Orleans, a member of People's Hurricane Relief Fund, one of the 27 organizations that requested the hearing. "Our communities were ignored during evacuation, we were ignored by the relief efforts, and now six months after Katrina, our voices are being drowned out during reconstruction."

In addition, the groups report that employers often fail to pay individuals they hire to help rebuild these communities. Further, they contend, employers often fail to provide workers with medical care and do little to protect them from on-the-job environmental hazards.

Some immigrants who perform clean-up work in the region are doing so without property training and gear, exposing themselves to mold and, in some cases, asbestos, according to the groups who will testify on Friday.

During Friday's hearing, the law clinic at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall will present the international commission with a document requesting that the commission direct the U.S. government, as a member of the international body, to take specific "interim measures" to provide immediate assistance to immigrant survivors living in tents and to adequately prepare for the onset of the 2006 hurricane season, which is only three months away.

In addition, UC Berkeley law clinic students drafted a document outlining the impact of Katrina on the human rights of low-income African American and immigrant communities, and that report will be presented during the hearing as well.

The clinic is typically involved with human rights concerns abroad. Clinic officials and students have handled discrimination cases out of the Dominican Republic as well as worked on reports of potential human rights abuses following the Asian tsunami.

When Altholz, a lecturer at Boalt Hall, and law clinic director Laurel Fletcher drove though the Gulf Coast states in January to explore whether their knowledge gained from work on the Asian tsunami might be of service with a natural disaster on U.S. soil, they said they were not prepared for what they found.

Block after block, Altholz recalled, they drove by destroyed homes and battered communities. When they spoke with local community leaders, it was clear that human rights, in particular, as well as property rights issues remained key concerns.

"The level of destruction is astonishing," said Altholz. "But what was particularly striking is that the richest and most powerful country in the world failed to protect those most vulnerable and violated their rights as victims of natural disasters to food, water, clothing and shelter."