UN Issues Statement on Human Rights Violations in Detroit

Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire says mass struggle against the powers that be is required in Detroit

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Story Transcript

PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Detroit is undergoing large-scale water disconnections. This year alone at least 27,000 households have had their services disconnected. The scale of the water shutoffs carried out by a third-party company has reached unbearable proportions for people living in Detroit. Let’s have a look at what some of them had to say.

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DETROIT RESIDENT: I’m a single mother mother of five children, so going without water is a major, major problem, major issue.

DETROIT RESIDENT: So my water has been cut off three times. I [incompr.] water company, and she just told me I owed them $135. They turned my water off for $135.

PROTESTERS: Water is a human right! Stop the water shut offs!

PROTESTERS: [snip] the water. No more shutoffs! One! We are the people! Two! We are united! Three!

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PERIES: The conditions are so bad that two United Nations special rapporteurs were invited to Detroit by a number of community groups: the special rapporteur on human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and the other one on adequate housing and standard of living without discrimination. They heard from residents, council members, the mayor, and congressmen. In their joint statement, they said that the human rights to safe drinking water, sanitation, and adequate housing both derive from the right to an adequate standard of living protected under Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now joining us from Detroit to talk about the report and the conditions is Abayomi Azikiwe. Abayomi is the editor of Pan-African News Wire, cofounder of several Detroit-area organizations, including the Detroit Coalition against Police Brutality, the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice, and the Moratorium Now Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs. He’s also the president of Michigan Coalition for Human Rights.

Thank you so much for joining us, Abayomi.

ABAYOMI AZIKIWE, EDITOR, PAN-AFRICAN NEWS WIRE: Thank you.

PERIES: Abayomi, the report obviously puts a great deal of pressure on those running Detroit–the mayor, congressman, the council members. Are they in violation of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

AZIKIWE: They are, on that article as well as many others. The situation here in the city of Detroit–water, their lack of access to affordable water, is one aspect of a much broader crisis which has developed over decades as a result of the restructuring of the overall system here in the city of Detroit. We have massive downsizing in the auto industry, the steel industry. This, of course, has impacted the economy in a myriad of ways, increasing poverty and at same time engendering massive home foreclosures and evictions. And, of course, this is clearly related to the water issue, because there are literally thousands upon thousands of abandoned industrial, commercial, as well as residential structures in the city where water is running and it is not being shut off by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. So they do not acknowledge the fact that their own system is broken. And the compensation for that, of course, is being passed on to poor and working people who still live here in the city.

PERIES: Abayomi, when the rapporteurs came, they spoke to various officials. Were you privy to what they said, how they defended themselves?

AZIKIWE: No. I know there was a meeting with the mayor on yesterday, which was October 20. And after the meeting, his media spokesperson, who was a former corporate media personality, did not agree with the statement that was issued by the United Nations rapporteurs. But that’s to be accepted, because the current administration in Detroit is one which is oriented towards the corporate community, towards the banks, and they do not want to hear anything that’s critical of their existing policies, which in fact favor a very small percentage of the people who live in the city or who have business interests in the city. So the mayor’s office rejected even a statement that was issued by the two representatives from the United Nations that were here in Detroit over the last several days.

PERIES: What do you mean he just rejected what was reported or the joint statement by the rapporteurs?

AZIKIWE: They said, in effect, that the United Nations rapporteurs already had their minds made up prior to the meeting. But what they did not acknowledge was the fact that the day before, which was October 19, there was about 400 Detroit residents who met with the rapporteur in a town hall meeting in Wayne County Community College located downtown. And so many people wanted to speak, and they were not able to speak, to fully voice their concerns, their issues, their actual experiences about the conditions prevailing in relationship to access to water, as well as housing. But just that narrow window of vision that the United Nations was privy to on Sunday, October 19, was enough for them to conclude that this city has serious problems and that it is not concerned, from an official level, about providing affordable water for people to drink.

Now, this issue of water was also litigated in the federal bankruptcy trial, which is still going on in Detroit. A class-action lawsuit was brought before a judge, Steven Rhodes, in July. There was an actual trial that took place in September. And Rhodes’ conclusion was that harm is being done to people who have their water shut off in the city of Detroit, thousands upon thousands of households. But at the same time, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department needs money, and people have to pay their bills, even though they cannot afford to pay their bills. Well, the fact is, people cannot pay their bills, because this system is so inadequate, inefficient, that people are getting bills that are way out of proportion to their uses of water. People are being forced to pay for damage that has being done as a result of the lack of the infrastructural repair. There’s also the question of the role of the banks and in terms of taking well over $500 million out of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 2012 to terminate interest rate swaps. These swaps were held by some of the leading banks in the United States, and indeed in the world.

So none of these aspects of the water crisis were discussed on Sunday, October 19. They were raised in a private meeting with some attorneys who were involved in litigating the class-action lawsuit in federal bankruptcy court.

But the city is, of course, a city administration that is backed by the, for lack of a better term, 1 percent that dominate the entertainment, finance, and industrial sectors of the economy here in Detroit. And they don’t want to acknowledge the fact that the overwhelming majority of people here in this city do not have access to basic services, they don’t have access to due process on a local, statewide, and even on a federal level, because the judge ruled against the victims of the water shutoffs. And several community organizations, such as the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, which has been fighting the water crisis not just from the standpoint of the shutoffs, but also pointing out that the industrial and finance abandonment of the city and the draining of the city resources through these bogus bond issues is really at the root of the crisis.

PERIES: One of the things that the report is saying is that

“Ensuring freedom from discrimination does not mean that everyone should be treated equally when their circumstances are different. Water and sanitation does not have to be free. It must rather be affordable for all. The price cannot put a household in debt or limit access to essential services such as food or medicine. A human rights framework provides that people should not be deprived of these rights if they cannot pay the bill for reasons beyond their control.”

So if all of this is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration Article 25, how are the residents, who seems to be quite organized, how do you plan to fight back?

AZIKIWE: Well, we have to build a mass struggle against the powers that be here in the city of Detroit, the financial institutions, the corporations that have complete dominance over policy formulation and implementation here in the city of Detroit. It’s obvious that the city administration the local courts, the state courts, and even the federal courts are not sympathetic to the plight of working people and the poor not only in Detroit, but also across the country, because this bankruptcy proceeding that’s going on right now in Detroit has national implications.

So the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a sterling document that was initially published in 1948. However, it does not have any enforcement or binding powers in regard to United States law and the overall administration of United States law. So it’s a good platform for people to articulate the concerns and their demands, but power has to come from an organized and mobilized political movement, and that’s what is really needed here in the city of Detroit during this time period. But it’s quite obvious that the courts are not supporting the fundamental human rights or even civil rights of the majority of the people here in the city of Detroit.

PERIES: Abayomi, this is a story we’ll be continuing to follow on The Real News Network, and I hope you come back and keep us informed.

AZIKIWE: Thank you for the invitation.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.