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Blog posts for 2011
Submitted by Bill Schulz on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 7:17am.
The sudden death of North Korea's Kim Jong-il presents the world with a new conundrum regarding the most secretive nation on the globe: will Kim's son, Kim Jong-un, in his 20s, be able to hold onto power and perpetuate the repressive regimes of his father and grandfather or will some combination of circumstances or new leadership present an opportunity for a ratcheting down of hostilities and tension? In the short run, North Korea's anxiety about the transition is likely to be accompanied by even more belligerent talk, if not actions, as the younger Kim tries to consolidate his power and burnish his credentials as a strongman. But, as we are seeing right now in Myanmar, even the most authoritarian societies can sometimes modify their ways.
UUSC has not been active on the Korean Peninsula since the early 1950s when our predecessor organization was instrumental in introducing social-work education there. But what our work around the world for more than 70 years has taught us is two things: First, that the existence of repressive regimes anywhere reinforces the need to redouble our work for justice and human rights wherever we have an opening to do that. That is why we have been so active in Myanmar, for example, creating a revolving-loan fund to help women and communities at large develop sustainable livelihoods. And second, that those opportunities for change can arise in the most unexpected places.
I'm not predicting that North Korea will be one of them. But I am assuring you that whenever opportunities present themselves to bring greater openness, justice, and human rights to the world, UUSC will be there.
What an irony — that the great Czech democrat Vaclav Havel and the great North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-il would die within days of one another. But what a source of hope that UUSC exists to help advance Havel's values — and yours — and to do all we can to see that there are fewer and fewer regimes like Kim Jong-il's spreading their repression across the earth.
We can only do that with your continuing support. Won't you join us then in this season of hope and promise to spread your values wherever the opportunity arises?
Submitted by Guest on Fri, 12/16/2011 - 1:08pm.
On the ground in Haiti. Left to right: Nicole McConvery, Erik Mohn, Wendy Flick, Evan Seitz.
UUSC was excited to partner with the Unitarian Universalist Association on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti, December 3–10. In the post below, trip-leader-in-training Nicole McConvery reflects on lessons learned in Haiti.
Cruising down the recently paved highway connecting the Central Plateau to Port-au-Prince, we drove through a land that's bursting with life and movement. As we cut through the mountains and golden light of dawn, catching breathtaking glimpses of vast lakes, rolling hills, and industriousness of all shapes and sizes bustling along dusty paths, I reflected on the preceding week that we had spent in Hinche: mornings hauling rocks side by side with Haitians; afternoons meeting with the resourceful and inspiring minds of the leaders of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) who are changing lives and shaping the future of their country one tire garden, eco-village, and youth program at a time; and nights in fellowship and reflection with our brood of thoughtful and energizing trip participants.
It almost felt like a dream even though it was probably one of the more "real" experiences I've ever had. And, like dreams, I've been finding it difficult to articulate what I experienced to everyone back at home; there's still much to process. But I'll try to unload a few of the things I've been contemplating since I returned to Boston last weekend.
Haiti is the most densely populated country in the Western Hemisphere and reading that as a quick fact versus experiencing it firsthand are two very different things. With so many people concentrated around one urban center, you can see and feel the struggle for space and resources all around you. It was market day as we drove back from Hinche, and the roadside depots were overflowing with buyers and sellers who come together once a week to negotiate life's essentials; gaze upon this intimate slice of life from the true 99 percent and then contemplate the luxurious, gross absurdity of the stampede at Black Friday a few latitudinal degrees north.
As we walked through the streets of Port-au-Prince, I kept imagining a hybrid of Los Angeles and New York City; the devastating earthquake that razed this island nation in 2010 could just as easily have struck any of our precariously unprepared coastal metropolises. I was reminded of and humbled by the fragility of life all around me here, home, and everywhere, inspired by the resumption of life in the wake of such massive loss. And I thought a lot about the constant waste of resources that abounds in my country, state, city, and home kitchen.
Anytime I found myself lost in bewildered or guilt-stricken thought, a kind hand on my shoulder or a contagious laugh echoed in the cabin of our van and pulled me back; I remembered I was not alone in my experience. Probably the most significant lesson that was reiterated throughout every aspect of my time in Haiti was the absolute necessity of community — to survive, to process, to thrive — in this life. I compared the lightness of load bearing in the company of others with my arguably solitary day-to-day existence back home; I thought about the pervading sense of alienation that abounds in the first world, where neighbors are strangers and car culture is a description of interpersonal relations. It's not sustainable. And without the social net, the interdependent web of existence that can catch and carry us when we fall, there is no future. But in Haiti, I saw people pulling together, fashioning homes from refuse; I saw farmers and leaders at MPP planting gardens in chaos, laughing and hugging and living. In Haiti, I saw a way forward and richness of spirit that we can all learn from.
Submitted by Guest on Tue, 12/13/2011 - 8:23am.
UUSC was excited to partner with the Unitarian Universalist Association on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti, December 3–10. In the post below, written on December 9, participant George Wootton reflects on time spent working with the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP).
I came to Haiti with memories of seeing a devastated country two weeks after the January 2010 earthquake. Although our first night's Port-au-Prince lodgings shielded us from the remnants of that natural disaster, the damage was obvious just by traveling in this city. On this trip, though, I've seen a very different Haiti.
On December 4, we packed into two SUVs and ascended into what Tracy Kidder referred to as mountains beyond mountains. From Port-au-Prince, we drove mostly uphill for less than three hours on a well-constructed road into the Central Plateau. (We were told that pre-earthquake, this same trip took eight hours. My compliments to post-earthquake construction.) We drove through the lower plains, wide fields of grass and scattered trees, rising into the foothills, passing small homes made of various materials, from tarps the cinder block. People were sitting by the road in the Haitian heat, watching us pass. We traveled through busy villages, active with markets, shops, and houses too close to the road for my comfort; pedestrians; animals; and smaller vehicles, from human power to donkey power to fossil-fuel-energized horsepower. We passed into a land of rolling hills, lakes, streams, and lush low vegetation.
At midday, we entered the MPP complex in Papaye, Haiti, a series of buildings that support organic farming, classes, and housing for a few residents and the many people who come here to learn. At MPP, we are surrounded by trees — palm, Haitian oak, locust, and many others I can't identify with hanging pods and ripe, round, luscious-looking fruit. The deforestation of this country is hard to imagine here. This place is alive with growth — physical, educational, emotional. Sounds of people living, roosters crowing, dogs fighting, insects, Haitian music, and construction can all be heard at various times during the day and night.
Our days have been busy. Mornings have been spent at the eco-village, a group of 10 recently constructed 3-room homes that house families who have left the difficult life they experienced in Port-au-Prince. Although not without its challenges, their new lives in this UUSC-sponsored village have brought opportunities for earthquake survivors to learn many aspects of organic farming, construction, and community living. I respect, though, the trauma that necessitated this transition. (One resident of the eco-village said that although he was willing to talk to us about the earthquake, he did not want to revisit those difficult memories.)
Our work has involved helping build a community center in the middle of the circle of homes. We have carried rock and cement by hand and, if we are lucky, by one of the two wheelbarrows in this community, although this was rare. We have poured cement, built a door, planted trees, and cleared vegetation. One of our members, Sally Beth, called on her experiences in Mali and Uganda, to teach village residents and volunteers alike how to construct and use a wood-burning stove far more efficient than the cooking facilities currently being used in the village. This will have a huge impact on the lives of these people.
In the afternoons, we have visited with representatives of MPP groups — men, women, and youth — all who explain the empowerment gained through the vision and energy of Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a charismatic man in his mid 60s who has fought for the rights of peasants throughout his life. We have toured the health clinic and canning factory, and we've visited the home of a local resident and talked about the changes in his life since MPP was founded. We have seen waterfalls, lakes built for aquaculture, farming cooperatives, techniques in organic farming that anyone in the United States would be proud to show off, played soccer with a local youth team, and danced to a Kompa band during the festival of the Immaculate Conception in Hinche.
I've made friends with people from all over the United States who share my need to understand how healthy Haiti can be and who want to participate in this healing. We have learned, in conjunction with our Unitarian Universalist values, new ways of understanding how we can respect the inherent worth of all people, respect the interdependent web of all existence, and explore our search for justice, equity, and compassion in our human relations.
Tomorrow we head back to Port-au-Prince. We will get on airplanes that will carry us to Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Utah, and Idaho. We leave, still searching, but with an experience that has been life changing. I am inspired by what I have seen, both in my fellow volunteers and in the Haitians who are building new lives. I look forward to carrying these sights, sounds, and lessons to my Utah UU congregation and to my next trip to this changing country.
Submitted by Bill Schulz on Thu, 12/08/2011 - 2:36pm.
The following post, "Human Rights Day 2011: Signals of Hope," by UUSC President William F. Schulz, was published in the Huffington Post on December 8, 2011.
The year 2011 has been momentous for human rights. The Arab Spring alone promises to reshape the human rights landscape for generations to come. Add to that the independence of South Sudan, the apparent opening in Myanmar and, domestically, Occupy Wall Street, with its plea for a new era in economic rights for the 99 percent, and you have the makings of a watershed year.
Behind these headline developments are a variety of important markers worth noting as we celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10, 2011, because they carry the potential for long-lasting change in the very way we think about human rights.
The emergence of the Arab League, for example, as a broker in the efforts to stop deadly violence in Libya and now Syria signals not just a newfound potency for the league itself. It also reflects an emerging international consensus that sovereignty no longer bestows immunity when it comes to mass atrocities. The fact that the international community, à la the Obama Doctrine on humanitarian intervention, treats different countries differently when it comes to military action, does not mean that the norm — "Thou shalt not kill your own people" — is not well on its way to being established.
Or take the growing role that Turkey is claiming for itself in the larger community of Muslim states. It was not too long ago that Turkey would have been included in anyone's list of serious human-rights offenders and its treatment of its Kurdish population still leaves much to be desired. But the fact that Turkey, a vibrant democracy with an Islamic ruling party, is seeking to export its model of governance to others in the Islamic world reinforces the fact that Islam need not equate to autocracy when it comes to the use of political power. The vote in Tunisia has already proven that and, though the Islamists may well claim victory in Egypt, they will find, like others before them who have taken the reins of power, that governing requires pragmatism more than purity. That is particularly true in as raucous a society as Egypt's.
Or, finally, consider the little-noticed transfer of Laurent Gbagbo, former Ivory Coast strongman, to The Hague following his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed following his refusal to step down after he had lost reelection. Three things make this case far more important than the fate of Gbagbo himself: first, that the failure to honor the results of clean, fair democratic elections prompted outrage sufficient to reverse the theft — until recent years something all too rare in Africa; second, that Gbagbo, unlike Muammar Qaddaffi, was not killed by his adversaries once they had him in his clutches but turned over to international authorities; and third, that the ICC has established its credibility sufficiently that virtually all parties involved, including the United States, which has pointedly refused to join the court, saw it as an appropriate vehicle for helping Ivory Coast address its demons.
All this is not to say that China does not continue to defy virtually all standards of civil and political rights or that rape does not continue to plague Congo or that Belarus does not continue to imagine itself still living in Soviet times. There is still plenty about the current state of human rights to cloud even the rosiest-colored glasses. But it is to say that, though the struggle for human rights be long, it is headed in the right direction. And that would make the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified 63 years ago on December 10, inordinately proud.
Submitted by Guest on Thu, 12/08/2011 - 8:09am.
UUSC is excited to be partnering with the Unitarian Universalist Association on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti, December 3-10. In the post below, participant Bradley Korb describes the trip from Port-au-Prince to the training center of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) and the transition from despair to hope.
We're in Haiti and making excellent progress with our work at MPP's eco-village near Papaye in the Central Plateau! Today is our second day working at MPP, and it has been an experience that I will never forget. I have experienced a range of emotions during these first few days, from sadness to hopefulness.
We spent the first night in Port-au-Prince on Sunday before driving up to the MPP training compound in Papaye. In Port-au-Prince, we saw the impoverished conditions in which the Haitian people live and also the vast destruction that occurred from last year's earthquake. I don't know what Port-au-Prince was like before the earthquake, but the city looks like a war zone now in some areas, and many people are struggling to meet their basic human needs of safe food and water that we Americans take for granted. But at the same time, we saw many people attempting to resume a normal lifestyle by buying essential items from street vendors, which helped others in their attempts to make a living.
While driving the 2.5 hours from Port-au-Prince to Papaye, we continued to see impoverished people going on with their daily activities along the highway while people zoomed by on their way to other destinations. While it was clear that the people we passed were very disadvantaged, I did see a few signs of hope along the way. One image that stuck with me was of a man walking home from church wearing a suit and carrying a trumpet. I imagined that this man had played his trumpet at his church service and that many people enjoyed his music. This gave me hope that the human spirit is resilient and continues to insist that life be enjoyed even if you live in the nation with the fewest resources in the Western Hemisphere. Even with this sign of hope, I arrived in Papaye feeling a sense of despair for the abject poverty that I saw on our drive.
However, our first day of work at MPP's eco-village turned my sense of despair into hope. During our first day, we worked alongside residents of the 10-home village, helping them build the foundation for their community building. It was gratifying to experience the community that these former residents of Port-au-Prince have developed and the ownership that they have taken in their new village and their new neighbors. We experienced a sense of community that we don't typically have in the United States. Even though these people have next to nothing, they have each other and are dedicated to helping each other make the best of their lives. That experience was both gratifying and reassuring.
It is with hope for this impoverished community in Haiti and hope in the future of humanity that I look forward to my remaining experiences of our visit to Haiti.
Submitted by Evan Seitz on Fri, 12/02/2011 - 12:55pm.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is partnering with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti, December 3–10. In the post below, trip leaders Nicole McConvery of the UUA and Evan Seitz of UUSC share their thoughts on the journey to help rebuild the community and lives of earthquake survivors in Haiti.
Post authors and trip leaders Nicole McConvery and Evan Seitz.
After months of planning, we can't wait for the volunteers to arrive for our next JustWorks experience! As trip leaders, we've arrived safely in Port-au-Prince, and it has been nonstop preparation for the arrival of participants ever since. Last night, all the trip leaders met at the hotel and went over last-minute logistics. It is great working with the team, including UUSC Haiti Emergency Response Manager Wendy Flick, who has over 10 years of experience in Haiti. We reviewed the flight itineraries of our volunteers and are ready to pick them up at the airport tomorrow.
We have a great and diverse group of volunteers on this trip, thanks to the generosity of UUA donors. Ten Unitarian Universalists from nine states will be working to construct a community building at the eco-village site, a project of UUSC's partner the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP). Located several hours outside of Port-au-Prince in the Central Plateau, the eco-village is providing sustainable homes and livelihoods for 10 Haitian families displaced by the earthquake — and establishing a model for future villages that are already being planned.
On the UUA-UUSC joint JustWorks trip for youth in August 2011, we helped construct the final two homes in this village. Now all 10 homes have been constructed, the families have moved in, and the first crops have been harvested. It is an exciting time! The community building will be used for communal agricultural activities, trainings, and social gatherings.
We're happy to report that this is the first time in Haiti for trip leader Nicole, who is part of the UUA's International Office, as well as for fellow trip leader Erik Mohn, the UUA's young adult spirituality and service consultant as well as a consultant for UUSC's College of Social Justice. Evan remembers being quite nervous his first time in Haiti, which was also his first time leading a trip for UUSC. If Nicole and Erik are nervous, they certainly don't show it!
That's it for now; we need to go get some rest. Our first set of volunteers arrives at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, and we want to be bright-eyed to greet them! We're so looking forward to another powerful experience working with Unitarian Universalists and MPP in the unforgettable countryside of Haiti's Central Plateau.
Submitted by Rachel Ordu Dan... on Thu, 12/01/2011 - 11:56am.
The human right to water has scored yet another victory, this time in Kenya where a district court has determined that everyone in Kenya has a right to safe and clean water in adequate quantities.
A judge of the High Court at Embu, Kenya, said this while delivering judgment in a case brought by 1,123 people who were evicted from their lands by government officials to make way for road construction. The petitioners — among them women, children, and elderly persons — have occupied the lands since the 1940s. In spite of this, they were not given a notice of eviction or consulted by the government. They were rendered homeless when the government came with armed policemen and bulldozers, and evicted them. The police used tear gas on the petitioners and resorted to physical violence when they tried to resist the demolition of their homes. As a result, some of the petitioners were forced to live in the open, others in makeshift structures — all exposed to the elements of nature and health risks, and without access to basic necessities like food, water, and sanitation. Several children dropped out of school. In addition, 26 of the evicted individuals were over 60 years of age and forced to endure unbearable conditions.
In the decision, the court concluded that this style of eviction violated the dignity of the petitioners and their human rights. According to the court, the petitioners are entitled to the rights to adequate housing, reasonable standards of health care, and to clean and safe water in adequate quantities under the constitution of Kenya. In addition, it also ruled that the government violated the rights of the children to education.
The court also mentioned that Kenya has ratified the U.N. Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which means that the government is bound to respect, protect, and enforce the rights recognized in the covenant, including the rights to water and sanitation. In conclusion, the court awarded each person the sum of 200,000 Kenya shillings in damages and ruled that the petitioners should be allowed to return to their land.
Although the government may decide to appeal, this is a landmark decision and a victory for economic and social rights in Kenya. Kenya enacted a new constitution in 2010 that guarantees several economic and social rights, including the rights to water and sanitation. This decision represents the beginning of efforts by civil society in Kenya to ensure these rights are not just in the books but are implemented and respected by the government. Hopefully, the government of Kenya will comply with the court's decision and make sure the people affected are returned to their homes and adequately compensated.
Submitted by Bill Schulz on Thu, 12/01/2011 - 6:55am.
Famine survivors seeking relief in Dadaab, Kenya, after losing all their livestock to drought. Photo © 2011 UUSC
The following post, "Famine in East Africa: It's Not Over Yet," by UUSC President William F. Schulz, was published in the Huffington Post on November 30, 2011.
Ten days ago the New York Times carried the headline, "Somalia Famine Eases with Rainfall and Aid" and quoted UN officials as saying that the number of people facing imminent starvation in Somalia had dropped by half a million to 250,000. To those of us who have been trying to get assistance to the region for the past six months, this is of course good news.
In the first place, it is good just to get the famine mentioned in the mainstream press. Between mid-October and mid-November, CNN had cited the famine fewer than 10 times while referencing Kim Kardashian's mini-marriage almost 70 and Herman Cain's alleged sexual escapades nearly 200. And it is good news because fewer people are dying. But the true story is far more complex than it appears.
Aid agencies are often accused of exaggerating the direness of humanitarian crises for their own mercenary reasons. When people are thought not to be in jeopardy, funds dry up; success breeds indifference. In the case of Somalia, NGOs and the UN have done a remarkable job of getting aid to the needy under extraordinarily difficult circumstances — a failed government in Mogadishu; threats from the terrorist group Al Shabab; a military incursion by Kenya; and an utterly inadequate infrastructure for the delivery of supplies. The international community can take some justifiable pride in its accomplishments. But equally justified are the worries.
I live in Gloucester, Mass., home of The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger's famous account of the sword fishing boat Andrea Gail and the perfect conjunction of low pressure, high pressure and tropical moisture that sunk her near Sable Island in the north Atlantic in the fall of 1991. I have frequently thought of the applicability of that metaphor to Somalia the past six months as it experienced its own perfect storm through a combination of drought, governmental incompetence and violence — first internal violence prompted largely by Al Shabab, and then violence wrought by Kenyan (and, potentially, Ethiopian) intervention. The result was as many as 13 million people across the Horn of Africa in need of emergency assistance.
That number is now down to 4 million — better but still about the population of Los Angeles. Three of the six zones in Somalia, the worst of the affected areas being the ones controlled by Al Shabab, still face famine and Al Shabab continues to threaten and harass aid workers. What has been little noticed, moreover, is that drought knows no borders. The crisis is not confined to Somalia but has spilled over into Kenya and Ethiopia, both relatively stable countries until now, where it could have long-term drastic consequences.
Among other things, tens of thousands of Kenyans and Ethiopians have been internally displaced by the famine and the conflict. Because refugee complexes take only those who have crossed borders, tensions between the internally displaced and Somali refugees remain high. In addition, Somalia is a vortex that has already drawn Kenya into the fighting and threatens to do the same with Ethiopia, thus destabilizing the region further and putting more children are at increased risk of forced conscription and sexual appropriation. Perhaps most damaging in the long run is the destruction to the pastoral lifestyles that so many worked so hard to establish. With the loss of their herds to drought, men have abandoned their families, leaving women and children even more vulnerable than usual, and providing a potential source of fresh recruits for the militias that have so plagued the region.
The famine is, in other words, just one of the lenses through which to view this tragedy. And that makes sense because the famine was but a symptom of far deeper underlying fissures. Not only can the partial alleviation of the food emergency be quickly reversed if the international community lets down its guard but those fissures will only get worse if Kenya and Ethiopia get drawn into a long-running war.
So, reasonable as it may be to pause for a moment to celebrate progress, it is critically important to keep in mind that that perfect storm has far from abated and now threatens to sweep up two more countries in its tumultuous wake. Somalia itself will not soon be righted but ongoing attention to the region's misery will help contain the contagion. And while that may not be as immediately intriguing as Kim or Herman's relational woes, it is in the last analysis far more morally and strategically compelling.
Submitted by Dick Campbell on Wed, 11/23/2011 - 9:07am.
The media coverage included a major feature story on
KUAF-FM, the National Public Radio station in Fayetteville. You
can listen to the nine-minute segment, "Restaurant Involved in Wage Theft
Picketed," which aired as the lead in the daily Ozarks at Large program on Friday, November 18, 2011.
Like thousands of activists around the country who are protesting the ever-mounting gap between the extremely rich and those of us who are the 99 percent, UUSC's economic-justice partner based in Springdale, Ark., is supporting the Occupy Northwest Arkansas movement. Meanwhile, rooted in its core mission to organize and advocate for workers to obtain a safe workplace and a fair wage, worker members of the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center (NWAWJC) continue to deal with day-to-day, firsthand experiences of wage theft, otherwise known as "the crime wave no one talks about."
NWAWJC has been a leader in bringing public attention to the enormity of the nationwide wage-theft issue, and I was especially pleased to see that their latest public activism caught the attention of radio and television outlets in Fayetteville, Ark.
The media coverage included a major feature story on
KUAF-FM, the National Public Radio station in Fayetteville. You
can listen to the nine-minute segment, "Restaurant Involved in Wage Theft
Picketed," which aired as the lead in the daily Ozarks at Large program on Friday, November 18, 2011.
Click play button to listen or download the MP3 file.
The forum and rally also was featured in a two-minute video segment on KNWA-TV, a Fox Network affiliate, also based in Fayetteville.
The news stories focused on events organized by the workers' justice center in Fayetteville. The forum spotlighted and urged support for an anti-wage theft bill pending in the Arkansas state legislature. The forum was followed by picketing in front of Celi's Restaurant on Center Street in Fayetteville for allegedly withholding wages from a former employee.
"Wage theft takes a toll in our communities as wages are stolen from millions of workers in the United States every year," said Fernando Garcia, the center's campaign director. "Wage theft too often forces workers to make tough decisions between feeding their families and providing them shelter. Workers should not have to go through these difficult times because some greedy employer decides to not pay wages."
Ana Aguayo, the center's communications director, pointed out that unscrupulous employers often use threats and other pressures to dissuade workers, many of whom are recent immigrants and do not speak English, from reporting wage-theft abuses.
"Wage theft includes violations of minimum-wage laws, not paying time-and-a-half overtime pay, forcing workers to work off the clock, workers not receiving their final paychecks, and stealing tips," said Aguayo. "Even the Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded think tank, estimated that companies annually steal 19 billion dollars in unpaid overtime. The scope of these abuses is staggering."
Last year, at the urging of NWAWJC, the mayor of Fayetteville issued a proclamation condemning wage theft as an illegal practice that causes irreparable harm to low-income workers and ethical businesses. Fayetteville was the first city in the United States to issue such a public pronouncement and to promise strong action to combat wage theft.
Submitted by Rachel Ordu Dan... on Mon, 11/21/2011 - 3:04pm.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has affirmed the importance of safe drinking water and sanitation to the health and safety of every human being. In a recent decision, the court agreed that tenants have a right to water and sanitation and that a dwelling without running water is unfit for human habitation.
The case, Leo Belanger et al v. John Mulholland, was brought by tenants who lived in a trailer for several months without running water and a functioning toilet after the water pipes were damaged. When asked by the tenants to fix the water pipes, the landlord merely gave abatement on the rent and told the tenants that he had no obligation to make the repairs. He even told one of the tenants that he "was on his own with that." As a result, the tenants were forced to buy bottled water and haul water from their neighbors' homes for several months. In its ruling, the court said that lack of running water endangers human health and safety.
According to the court, any agreement for rental of a dwelling unit comes with a warranty that the dwelling is fit for human habitation. Therefore, any condition that threatens human health, such as lack of running water and a functioning toilet, constitutes a breach of this warranty. The tenants were awarded damages by the court.
This is yet another victory for the human rights to water and sanitation in the United States. Although the human rights to water and sanitation primarily call attention to the obligation of governments to ensure that all people — regardless of their status — have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, the obligation of private actors involved in water provision to respect these rights is increasingly being highlighted. This decision of the Maine Supreme Court underscores the obligation of private actors as well as the vital role water and sanitation plays in our lives every day.