UN Special Rapporteur Makes Historic U.S. Visit

Headshot of Jennifer Rosenbaum

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum is a Robina Fellow at the Schell Center for Human Rights, where she employs a human rights approach to raising standards for low-wage workers on global supply chains. JJ coordinated meetings with Louisiana residents, migrant workers, and human rights advocates during the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Association and Assembly Maina Kiai’s U.S. visit in July. Below, she offers reflections on this historic visit and the importance of protecting the human right to freedom of association and assembly in order to protect the right to organize for movements, workers' centers, and trade unions.


In July, Maina Kiai, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Association and Assembly, made his first official visit to the U.S. since the United Nations mandate was established in 2011. He both recognized U.S. leadership in important areas and highlighted areas where the U.S. falls short in living up to its international human rights obligations. Kiai concluded, “America seems to be at a moment where it is struggling to live up to its ideals… the most critical being racial, social, and economic inequality, which are often intertwined.”

In addition to visiting Washington, D.C.; New York; the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia; and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland; Special Rapporteur Kiai traveled to Baltimore, Ferguson, Phoenix, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Jackson, MS—communities recognized for powerful, grassroots resistance to human rights abuses.

Kiai prioritized meetings with leaders of the Movement for Black Lives in multiple cities including Baltimore and Ferguson. In Baton Rouge, he visited a corner store to speak with community members holding a vigil and held a public forum within weeks of the police killing of Alton Sterling and the protests that followed. In New Orleans, his consultations took up the intersection between race, criminalization, and structural unemployment. The Special Rapporteur was “tremendously disturbed” by the testimonies of “many, mainly young black men” who reported being repeatedly questioned or charged with petty offenses for hanging out on the streets. For Kiai, such social gatherings on street corners are crucial to “weaving a stronger social fabric.”

In these communities he devoted particular time and attention to the intersection between freedom of assembly and association, race and migration, criminalization and structural employment. He emphasized that movements for racial justice, labor rights, and immigrants rights are challenging the U.S. state and the role of the U.S. in the global economy in fundamental ways. Kiai not only highlighted breakdowns in U.S. rule of law in relation to freedom of assembly and association, he emphasized ways in which current laws uphold a system of inequality and structural racism within which the exercise of association and assembly rights is diminished or in some cases completely blocked.

Special Rapporteur Kiai also heard from immigrants organizing against the abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, New Orleans day laborers demanding city and state actors divorce themselves from unconstitutional immigration surveillance and raids, and guestworkers demanding corporate accountability on global supply chains of goods and labor, protections from forced labor, and the right to organize without threats of immigration enforcement and blacklisting.

His time in the South included sessions with representatives of two emblematic trade union campaigns. Filipino teachers who survived labor trafficking to organize with the American Federation of Teachers in Baton Rouge spoke about the need for greater protections for temporary foreign workers to exercise freedom of assembly and association. Nissan Workers testified about the limitations to protect against extreme union busting tactics as they organize to improve wages and working conditions in Jackson, MS. He also met with the United Steelworkers members from Novelis in New York and Asarco in Arizona; carwash workers from Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in New York City; and hotel workers from UNITE HERE in New York and Arizona.

While the final report will be offered to the Human Rights Council in June 2017, Special Rapporteur Kiai offered a powerful preliminary statement at the conclusion of his visit highlighting seven themes informed by the intersection of freedom of association and assembly and race and migration status.

In this statement, Kiai emphasized how collective struggle and resistance are fundamental to expanding human rights protections. He then outlined how freedom of assembly and association is tied to issues of race and migration; and how racism and the exclusion, persecution, and marginalization that comes with it affects the enabling environment for the exercise of association and assembly rights.

Special Rapporteur Kiai recognized the “justifiable and palpable anger” within the black community arguing the stopping and frisking of African-American people in Philadelphia had reached “crisis levels.” He emphasized the importance for the black community to be able to express their anger in the “context that gave birth to the non-violence Black Lives Matter protest movement.”

The Special Rapporteur also scrutinized actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). Kiai found that migrant workers throughout the United States were in “precarious and exploitative situations” with workers scared of drawing attention to adverse conditions. The Rapporteur outlined how ICE, often in collaboration with local police has the effect of “aggravating violations of migrant rights.”

Kiai was highly critical of the vulnerabilities seasonal and guestworkers face. He compared the arrangement of H-2 visas, which ensures a balance of power in favor of the employer than the employee, as “not dissimilar to the Kafala system of bonded labor” system in the Gulf region.

Despite laws protecting many workers, the Special Rapporteur argues that in practice, the U.S. insufficiently protects workers’ ability to form and join unions. He cite the case of Asarco workers in Arizona to illustrate the demoralizing drawn our process that many employers engage with to frustrate union members whilst negotiating.

Kiai concluded that in a time of frustration and anger, it’s more important than ever to have robust promotion of assembly and association rights. To Special Rapporteur Kiai, these rights are a “key vehicle for public participation for marginalized groups” whose ability to participate in democracy may be otherwise limited.

The Special Rapporteur’s preliminary statement is available in full here