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Loyola University New Orleans Law Students Initiate Human Rights Investigation into Flint Water Crisis

Loyola press release - November 29, 2017

Charging human rights violations in the nation’s most devastating water crisis, Loyola law students aim to take the U.S. government before international human rights commission

When law professor Jeanne Woods first visited Flint, Michigan a year ago, she was astounded by the conditions and problems residents were facing – and by an evident lack of help. An expert in economic, social, and cultural rights, she has long argued that these rights are not merely ideals, but fundamental human rights - and that, in Flint, these human rights are being profoundly violated.

Backed by a university and Jesuit mission that includes care for the vulnerable and oppressed, Woods, who serves as Ted and Louana Frois Distinguished Professor in International Law Studies, started the Human Rights Advocacy Project at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law four years ago. For the past year, her students have been travelling to Flint, gaining hands-on experience advocating on behalf of victims. This week, Loyola New Orleans law students have filed a first-of-its-kind petition that aims to haul the U.S. government into an international tribunal on charges of violating the right to democracy and the rights to life and health in Flint. The Commission’s decision could set international precedent.

Loyola law students submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Humans Rights (IACHR), an international human rights tribunal located in Washington, D.C., alleging multiple human rights violations by government officials in Michigan that led to the devastating Flint water crisis. The petition, which can be seen here, was filed this morning, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017.

A decision in the residents’ favor, while not binding on the United States, would establish that clean and safe water is a basic human right and could influence policymaking on issues from infrastructure to water and waste management, Woods said.

“When I witnessed the impacts of the water crisis on the residents of Flint, Michigan, I saw an opportunity for Loyola law students to do something very concrete to help,” Woods said. “These students are using their knowledge, research, and skills to raise awareness of a fundamental human rights issue and an evident crisis that could happen in Anytown, U.S.A. Moreover, in filing this petition, they seek to change how we view fundamental rights within a democracy.”

The decision to change Flint’s water source was made by an emergency manager appointed by Governor Rick Snyder after he declared the City of Flint to be a “local government financial emergency.” Officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and two emergency managers have all been charged criminally. Most are charged with multiple felonies, some as serious as manslaughter.

After the primary source of water for Flint, Michigan was changed to the Flint River in early 2014, more than 100,000 people were exposed to high levels of lead through the contaminated water, the petition says. Lead exposure has caused extreme and debilitating health problems that have taken the lives of multiple people and have left many women infertile and children with permanent learning disabilities. The change in water sources has been linked to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that to date has taken the lives of at least a dozen people.

The gravamen of the petition filed by Loyola University New Orleans law students alleges that Michigan’s emergency management system deprives residents of their right to participate in government by granting unelected officials broad executive powers to overrule their elected representatives in crucial decisions. The crisis in Flint is a tragic example of how essential participation in government is to the protection of all human rights and how grievous a violation of the right to participate in government can be.

“Three years ago, a government-ordered switch in the town of Flint’s water supply caused more than 100,000 residents to be poisoned by lead and bacteria-contaminated water. At least one dozen people have died of Legionnaire’s disease and at least 12,000 children will face lifelong health problems from the irreversible effects of lead poisoning,” said third-year law student Benjamin D’Alessio. “The state of Michigan violated their human rights by having unelected officials make changes without their consent that would permanently impact their lives and health. Our petition is designed to ensure that such a tragedy never occurs again.”

In the international arena, the United States government is responsible for the actions of state officials. The petition is not the first effort by Loyola law students to assist the residents of Flint. Earlier this year, Loyola law students in the Human Rights Advocacy Project initiated a campaign to urge Michigan lawmakers to revive federal legislation to expedite Flint’s recovery in the wake of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

“This work by Professor Woods and her students is yet another example of Loyola's tradition of social justice and service to others,” said Bill Quigley, director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center and Law Clinic at Loyola.

Those interested in supporting or donating to organizations working with those affected by the crisis in Flint are invited to contact:

FlintH2OJustice (Facebook)

Woodside Church

www.woodsidechurch.net

1509 E Court St, Flint, MI 48503

(810) 767-4911

Salvation Army

http://centralusa.salvationarmy.org/genesee