The Duck of Minerva

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Human Wrongs

May 15, 2008

This month I am teaching (for the first time) an intensive summer course. Since the topic is the “Politics of International Human Rights,” and since I’m forcing my students to blog, all my blog posts for this month will concern human rights in one way or another.

Let’s begin with news from the American Political Science Association. APSA, which had contracted with New Orleans for its 2012 convention, is under pressure from a number of APSA sections to boycott the city because the state of Louisiana amended its Constitution to ban gay marriage or the recognition of “marriage-like incidents.” Although international human rights instruments do not explicitly refer to sexual orientation rights, many human rights organizations interpret discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a party.

The APSA Council is now inviting member comment on the issue until May 30, and heated discussion is also taking place on several APSA listservs and this blog. APSA’s notice on its homepage reads:

“The APSA Council is considering policy about selecting sites for our Annual Meeting and other conferences related to state laws about rights afforded same-sex unions legally recognized in other states. We are also considering the situation of the 2012 Annual Meeting already contracted for New Orleans, Louisiana. The Council welcomes member feedback on these issues. “

The logic behind this deliberation: APSA siting rules include a clause intended to insure that all its members are welcome in any conference venue, which allows it to terminate contracts if “the city in which the hotel is located establishes or enforces laws that, in the estimation of APSA, abridge the civil rights of any APSA member on the basis of gender, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, physical handicap, disability, or religion.”

The law in question is a state law, not a city ordinance, but the APSA Committee on the Status of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and the Transgendered in the Profession (LGBT Committee) proposed in July of last year that the APSA Council alter the rules to include state laws prohibiting gay marriage; and this is what is now being considered. Were the Council to change its rules, Louisiana (including New Orleans) would qualify as a target for such APSA guidelines; such rules if generalized would govern similar site decisions in the future.

Is this appropriate? One argument I’ve heard is that APSA should seize the opportunity to take a principled stance as an organization in favor of sexual orientation rights. But there is no consensus on this within APSA. Even within the Human Rights section, where most including myself share the values the boycott would represent, significant dissent exists as to whether this action is the measured response.

One argument against is that it would unfairly penalize New Orleans for a measure undertaken at the state level. The city is home to the largest GLBT population in the state, and was actually voted #2 for Gay-Friendliness in “Travel and Leisure’s” 2007 readers’ poll. While the amendment was supported 55-45 in Orleans Parish, this was by far the closest margin in the state, and occurred in the context of significant voter irregularies that may have disenfranchised as many as 58,000 residents .

There may also be significant rights conflicts here. In a letter to the section, Anthony Pereira of Tulane University pointed out:

“New Orleans is a beleaguered city trying to rebuild after Katrina. There are an estimated 12,000 homeless. Dozens of people live in a tent city in the middle of the downtown area – a sight reminiscent of the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression. The working poor of New Orleans have suffered a massive violation of their human rights because many of them lost their homes and have been basically abandoned by the government. APSA 2012 would inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy and give work to taxi drivers, maids, waitresses, bartenders, parking lot attendants, dishwashers, and other low-paid workers. If we care about human rights we should care about these people. This is why APSA’s Committee on the Status of Blacks in the Profession supports the siting of the conference in New Orleans because, among other reasons, “the black and poor communities of the City of New Orleans are still in the process of rebuilding their neighbourhoods after the devastating Hurricane Katrina” [and] “the APSA Annual Meeting would contribute to the economic recovery of the city”.

To this, Michael Goodhart offers a dissenting view at Human Rights and Human Welfare.

Irrespective of rights conflicts, or how much consensus may eventually develop among the membership, it seems to me there may be an important procedural problem: APSA rules, outlined in Article II(2) of its Constitution, prohibit it from taking general policy positions as an organization. However, it must be noted that APSA has sometimes done precisely this in the past.

Even if the organization could and should do so, why single out anti-same-sex-marriage laws in revisions to the site rules? Why not boycott cities in any jurisdiction where any human right is violated in law? Even if APSA limited itself to cases of pure legal discrimination, as opposed to the myriad of other “progressively realizable” human rights such as the right to health care, this still leaves things like state-sanctioned beating of children in America’s public schools (Louisiana is one of 26 US states that permits this punishment). As a child right advocate, I’d boycott the state on this basis – but how many of my colleagues would join me? Or why not boycott the 50 states entirely on account of Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, and our racist death penalty, and move the conference on up to Canada?

Perhaps for this reason: the goal of APSA is to promote the study of political science, not human rights per se. It seems justifiable to limit its attention to issues that genuinely affect its members.

In this vein, however, there may still be a case for a boycott of Lousisiana, on behalf of GLBT APSA members who reside in or are citizens of that state. But then, why would APSA not make similar stands against any number of other laws in the US that affect political scientists as well as the general public and fall short of human rights standards? So then child-spanking wouldn’t count as there are no under-18 APSA members to my knowledge, but GLBT rights is only one of ten issue areas in which Human Rights Watch considers the US to fall well short of its global human rights commitments, and this potentially affects adults in the country including all US-based APSA members, if not always in our capacity as political scientists. For example, APSA members are as likely as any other US citizens to fall victim to violations of privacy rights associated with national security policies, to various forms of racial or gender profiling, or to be detained arbitrarily under the PATRIOT act.

Probably, this too would be a Pandora’s Box. Free speech violations generally might fairly be viewed as less of an APSA priority than the very important issue of academic freedom per se. But APSA is on much firmer ground with respect to New Orleans if the case can be made that GLBT persons in the profession would genuinely be discriminated against in connection with the conference. After all, the law doesn’t just refuse marriage licenses in the state of Louisiana, it refuses to recognize “incidents of marriage” as legally valid. As one APSA member has put it:

“If a gay APSA member becomes ill and has to go to a hospital, will his partner in New York be allowed to make medical decisions for him? If a lesbian graduate student who has insurance benefits through her partner’s job has an accident, will the hospital recognize her coverage? If a non-married couple’s child travels with them to the meetings and has an emergency, will city officials respect both parents’ legal relationship as a form of parental authority?”

This fear may be overblown: there is legal precedent in the state of Louisiana suggesting the amendment would not be interpreted to override pre-existing legal arrangements of this type. Still, this shifts the burden to GLBT couples to make such legal arrangements, which are taken for granted by heterosexual couples. Since this increases the costs of attending the conference at all, a strong argument can be ade that this does in fact discriminate against our GLBT colleagues as professionals and provide APSA with a rationale for acting.

I agree with this. In that case, however, APSA should be prepared to be far more proactive in other respects besides sexual orientation discrimination. APSA does not have nor is it considering a policy, for example, of boycotting states with laws allowing employers to ask job candidates whether they are married at all – another discriminatory practice that negatively affects all couples, but particularly women in the profession. Nor has it taken actions to address the IRS’ non-recognition of childcare costs as reimbursable business expenses, which drastically increases the logistical and financial costs for families to attend professional conferences, another practice that disproportionately harms women. If siting policies are to be based on states’ laws affecting APSA members’ professional lives – and I support this in princple – the criteria considered should go far beyond sexual orientation, and APSA should be prepared to respond consistently across a range of concerns.

Is it? Consider: if even the sexual orientation rule were generalized, and applied to states with statutory rules against gay marriage as well as constitutional amendments (and why shouldn’t it be?) it would limit future APSA sitings to Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island and as of today California. To add many other types of discrimination into the mix would vastly complicate our ability to meet as an Association in the US. To not do so would itself represent a marginalization of a host of equally valid human rights concerns.

Even if this were feasible, there is a question of how effective it would be. Are the human rights of Louisiana’s citizens really best served by a boycott, or by thousands of social-justice-minded scholars showing up and bringing their perspectives with them?

I’m willing to be convinced, and I’m interested in hearing others’ ideas before I submit my comment to the APSA Council. But I’m leaning toward the view that while this cause is noble, the benefits of an organizational boycott are negligible, the slope slippery, the implications uncertain and the approach generally inconsistent.

Perhaps we should act as citizens here, and choose to boycott the state ourselves by not attending APSA 2012, or Mardi Gras, or by writing the appropriate policymakers and generally getting involved in advocacy on this and many other important civil rights issues in our country today. These forms of activism might be more meaningful, effective and just.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.