Dec 07, 2015

District of Columbia: Struggle for Statehood brought to International Stage through UNPO Membership

Photo Courtesy of Jacob Fenston


Every year thousands of people gather in the District of Columbia to march on a variety of civil and human rights issues. However, the District itself suffers from an often disregarded lack of democratic representation. To raise awareness at the international level of the absence of voting representation in the US Congress, the District of Columbia presented a bid to join the organisation’s more than 40 members.

Below is an article published by The Hoya:

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization accepted the District of Columbia’s bid to join its membership – marking the first North American territory to be represented by UNPO – on 9 November 2015. Shadow Senator Paul Strauss

Based in Brussels, Belgium, UNPO seeks to protect and promote the rights of its 42 members, which include indigenous peoples, minorities and unrecognized or occupied territories. According to UNPO Program Manager Johanna Green, member commonality stems from underrepresentation on a global scale.

“This is where UNPO acts as an international platform through which our members can have access to the international stage, be it the United Nations … or other international bodies,” Green said.

UNPO President Nasser Boladai said that D.C.’s application was accepted because the city meets the formal requirements of membership, including a lack of self-determination and voting representation in Congress.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) currently represents the District in the House of Representatives, but lacks the right to vote.

“As people in California have the same rights, people in D.C. should have the same rights,” Boladai said. “When people pay taxes and are full citizens of a country, they should have the same rights.”

In October, D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large, LAW ’88) launched a Statehood or Else campaign with the aim of garnering 1 million signatures on a petition to be delivered to President Barack Obama and Congress at the Democratic and Republican conventions in July 2016.

The District’s shadow Sen. Paul Strauss spearheaded D.C.’s membership bid by presenting the city’s case at the 20th meeting of the UNPO Presidency, the organization’s governing body, Nov. 9. Shadow senators are elected D.C. officials who lobby for full voting rights for the city in the Senate but do not hold seats in Congress. The District’s other shadow senator is Michael Brown, who supported Strauss in the bid.

Strauss said that he recognized similarities between Taiwan’s and D.C.’s lack of official representation on a diplomatic trip to Taiwan, which is also a founding UNPO member. After encountering UNPO again through his work with the Haratin, a marginalized minority group in Mauritania, Strauss said he began to research the organization.

“I saw, shockingly, every time I would read their rules and covenant, D.C. seemed to qualify,” Strauss said.

Strauss said he believes D.C.’s membership in the UNPO will help in its fight for statehood by focusing international attention on the issue.

“As we look for areas for international cooperation in these troubled times, I think this is an area in which international recognition will help advance the D.C. cause,” Strauss said. “We’re getting press in areas where D.C. voting rights doesn’t always get press.”

Boladai echoed Strauss’s optimism regarding D.C.’s acceptance into UNPO and said he feels that the relationship will be mutually beneficial.

“Creating awareness, making contact and learning from each other is what we can do together,” Boladai said.

However, Georgetown government professor Stephen J. Wayne listed several reasons why he believes D.C. statehood is not feasible, including partisan motivations.

“Basically, Republicans don’t want two more Democratic senators, states don’t want to lose any influence in the Senate and there is a general perception that it’s the United States that should control the District of Columbia because it’s the capital,” Wayne said.

While Strauss acknowledged the difficulty of achieving D.C. statehood, he is still optimistic about its prospects.

“It’s easy to be cynical about political developments, particularly this year,” Strauss said. “But you could also go back in time and find other examples of struggles for equality that were difficult to achieve … the arguments against it are primarily partisan; the arguments for it are primarily principle.”

Additionally, Strauss said there is a need for the fight for D.C. statehood to be moved to college campuses. Georgetown students are also currently in the process of forming a Georgetown University for D.C. Statehood group, which does not yet have Student Activities Commission approval but aims to hold its first general body meeting next semester.

“Students have always been at the forefront of social justice movements and civil rights movements, and this is really a civil rights issue,” Strauss said.