Tuesday, May 19, 2020

How Advocates are Advancing Racial Justice through Advocacy for Reparations and via Restorative Justice Initiatives

  • JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director of the Human Rights in the US Project at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute

On May 1st, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI) convened 200 lawyers, organizers, activists, and government representatives from around the world to explore how core human rights concepts of dignity, equality, and accountability are shaping remedies for racial justice, emphasizing pathways to reparations, and restorative justice. The virtual symposium, Racial Justice, Restoration, and Inclusion: Human Rights Principles and Practice, marked the Institute’s 17th annual Continuing Legal Education symposium on human rights in the United States.

The program was calibrated to explore how international human rights principles inform advocacy to address the reality that the social contract we all need, and deserve, is broken. At a time when there is sharp need for solidarity and community, the sessions were designed for lawyers and advocates to share strategies for organizing, communications, and legislative change that redefine justice, expand available remedies, and center healing and inclusion in work to tackle discrimination, bias, and persistent inequality. 

Speakers from the International Center for Transitional Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Movement for Black Lives, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Center for Court Innovation, among others, discussed how to leverage core human rights principles to forge institutions and approaches that foster equity. 

Judge Margaret Burnham, Director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at the Northeastern School of Law, kicked off the program. Her keynote remarks (view recording) articulated a conceptual framework for the day, illuminating the intersections and distinctions between approaches to transitional justice, restorative justice, and reparations. The keynote explored the importance of truth telling and acknowledgement in restoring dignity to victims of historical harms. Burnham emphasized that while significant strides have been made to advance legal equality, structural injustice and systemic harms remain largely unaddressed in the United States. Burnham also underscored that “we need to demand a full accounting,” and that the “themes of transitional justice, as reinforced by human rights instruments … offer a framework within which to combat amnesia about the past and anchor struggles for justice.”

The first panel, Foundational Concepts of Remedies and Reparations for Racial Injustice from Global and National Practice (view recording) distilled international human rights norms that define state obligations and require acknowledgement, accountability, redress and compensation for rights violations. Speakers drew from examples in Argentina, South Africa, Kenya and the Philippines, as well as national and local U.S. advocacy, to highlight concrete pathways to remediate past wrongs and eliminate laws and practices that perpetuate racism and inequity.

“‘There is no wrong without a remedy,’” recounted Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, highlighting that “equity is an incredibly important part of our constitutional obligation, and key to fulfilling the rights of those who have been injured,” while explaining why there are reasons to be optimistic about current advocacy for reparations.  Howard University School of Law’s Justin Hansford emphasized the potential, and the limitations, offered by a legal approach and shared his work “to obtain racial justice using a human rights framework and a social movement-centered approach.” Monifa Bandele of the Movement for Black Lives underscored the need for a holistic approach to reparations for chattel slavery, and its ongoing and continuing harms, describing local organizing coupled with UN and federal advocacy that led to partial accountability for decades of harm as a result of police torture of African American men in Chicago.  

The second session, Restorative Justice in Practice: Pathways to Racial Justice at the Local Level (view recording), explored how advocates and city government are operationalizing human rights in restorative justice initiatives to improve health equity, abolish the foster care system, and deliver justice when wrongs do occur. Panelists discussed initiatives that center the perspective of individuals most impacted by rights violations, emphasized the indigenous peace-making principles that drive this work, and explored the transformative potential of participatory justice.

Brett Taylor of the Center for Court Innovation discussed the emergence of the Tribal Justice Exchange, and the importance of an approach that focuses on “helping and healing people, rather than [retribution].” Movement for Family Power’s Erin Miles Cloud shared current efforts to disrupt and curtail the impact of the child welfare system, build community in ways that centers families harmed by the system, and create a new approach to family unity. Ivelyse Andino, Founder of Radical Health, underscored the importance of building trust and shifting power in order to address the stark health inequities facing communities in New York City, including through the use of circles.  Chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, Carmelyn Malalis, contributed ways that the Commission uses its statutory authority and community relations work to reimagine the role of government, affirmatively foster inclusion, and design restorative remedies for bias and discrimination that are grounded in community needs, and that address structural causes of harm.

Throughout the program, speakers focused on strategies to achieve justice while seeking to redefine the terrain of transformative and restorative justice practices. Some advocated working within the American legal system and rooting work in the constitution, others in movement-centered work, others in global human rights practices, and still others in indigenous practices. Their words, in concert, provided a new vision of racial justice in America and offered diverse avenues to achieve it.

Video of the entire program can be found on HRI’s YouTube channel.

The program agenda and materials are available on the Symposium event page.

Event co-sponsors included Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, Northeastern Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, the CUNY International Human Rights & Gender Justice Clinic, Social Justice Initiatives (SJI), US Human Rights Network, and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Law Review.  Columbia University’s Dominy Gallo (‘23), contributed to this blog.  


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