Thursday, January 26, 2023
New Article: Commission on Recognition and Reconstruction for the United States: Inspirational or Illusory?
Penelope Andrews, A Commission on Recognition and Reconstruction for the United States: Inspirational or Illusory?, 66 N.Y.L. Sch. L. Rev 359 (2022). Abstract below.
In this article I suggest that President Joe Biden issue an executive order to establish a Commission on Recognition and Reconstruction (CRR) to comprehensively confront the ongoing challenges to racial justice. I envisage the CRR as an adjunct to, and not a replacement for, the several measures currently being undertaken in law and policy to address these challenges. I imagine the CRR providing a national focus on the many ways that public and private institutions have responded to this current moment of racial distress, while also highlighting the obstacles and omissions toward the attainment of racial justice. The proposed CRR would then establish goals to be measurable in the short-, medium-, and long-term.
Tuesday, January 17, 2023
Johanna Bond, Foreword: Centering Intersectionality in Human Rights Discourse, 79 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 953 (2022). Abstract below.
In the last decade, intersectionality theory has gained traction as a lens through which to analyze international human rights issues. Intersectionality theory is the notion that multiple systems of oppression intersect in peoples’ lives and are mutually constitutive, meaning that when, for example, race and gender intersect, the experience of discrimination goes beyond the formulaic addition of race discrimination and gender discrimination to produce a unique, intersectional experience of discrimination. The understanding that intersecting systems of oppression affect different groups differently is central to intersectionality theory. As such, the theory invites us to think about inter-group differences (i.e., differences between women and men) and intra-group differences (i.e., differences in the experiences of discrimination and rights violations between white women and women of color).
Thursday, January 12, 2023
Event 1/27: Temple's Inaugural Professor Henry J. Richardson III Lecture on Racial Justice by Gay McDougall
On January 27, 2023, from 3:00PM to 6:00PM EST, join Temple University Beasley School of Law’s Institute for International Law and Public Policy, the Blacks of the American Society of International Law, the Temple Law School Black Law Students’ Association, the Temple Law International Law Society, and the Temple International and Comparative Law Journal for the Inaugural Professor Henry J. Richardson III Lecture, presented in honor of the life work of Professor Henry J. Richardson III, who has for decades pursued racial justice in international law in his scholarship, teaching, and mentorship.
The speaker will be Professor Gay McDougall, a globally acclaimed expert on international human rights law who currently serves as an independent expert on the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In December 2022, Professor McDougall was the first recipient of the AALS International Human Rights Section's Nelson Mandela Award.
The event will feature brief opening remarks, including remarks by Professor Richardson, a lecture by Professor McDougall followed by a question-and-answer session, and a reception. This event will take place in person at Temple’s Shusterman Hall as well as over Zoom.
The link to register for this free event can be found here.
Tuesday, November 22, 2022
On December 6, 2022, from 12-1pm ET, please join Northeastern University School of Law, the Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers’ Network and Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) for an event featuring speaker Professor Tendayi Achiume. Professor Achiume will reflect on her time a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. This event will be sure to provide a lot of insights for U.S. advocates on working with Special Rapporteurs.
Register for the virtual event here.
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Event 11/10: University of Miami Symposium on Food, Housing, and Racial Justice in the United States.
On November 10, 2022, the Human Rights Clinic and Program at the University of Miami School of Law, in collaboration with the Human Rights Society at the University of Miami School of Law, the National Right to Food Community of Practice, West Virginia University Center for Resilient Communities, and WhyHunger, present a Symposium on Food, Housing, and Racial Justice in the United States.
Deep reflection, innovative thinking, and joint strategizing with regards to hunger and food equity that put the needs and interests of communities of color at the center is urgent. The event will focus on human rights and racialized approaches to addressing hunger and related economic and social rights violations.
Drawing on efforts from Miami to cities and states around the U.S., the event will discuss:
- Food insecurity
- Food system governance
- Access to land and housing
- Role of local, state, and federal governments
- Implementation of United Nations’ recommendations
This event will take place in person and will be available virtually from 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM EST, at the University of Miami School of Law. To register, visit here.
Tuesday, October 18, 2022
Event 11/1: Can the United Nations Solve Racism? Symposium on the Global Anti-Racism Architecture of the UN
On Tuesday, November 1, 2022, from 5:30 – 7:30pm EST, join Fordham University School of Law’s Center on Race, Law, & Justice and Leitner Center for International Law and Justice for a discussion and reflection on the United Nations General Assembly’s session addressing racial discrimination, which will take place the day before. This event will be moderated by Gay McDougall, and the distinguished panelists include E. Tendayi Achiume, Gaynell Curry, Dominique Day, Justin Hansford, Justice Yvonne Mogkoro, and Verene Shepherd. The panelists will discuss anti-racism mechanisms of the UN and reflect on the new anti-racism architecture of the UN human rights system. Attendance for the event is available both in-person in Fordham Law’s McNally Amphitheater and online via Zoom Webinar.
To register for this event, click here.
Sunday, July 3, 2022
by Prof. Margaret Drew, UMass Law School
Independence day has been significant primarily for the powerful minority group. White Men.
BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, and religiously oppressed and those oppressed by religion are waiting for their time. Should these populations want a day that is meaningful for them, it may be that they will need to create their own. Freedom Day would celebrate when the government and those with power and privilege leave women and others alone to control their own destinies.
Freedom from oppressors is all that is asked. That day will come. United we will succeed. Don't miss the opportunity to write, revisit or recreate protest songs.
You may be interested in listening to both an interview on protest songs and songs being written or re-written after the Dobbs decision.
You may have heard Reina Del Cid's protest to the tune of My Country Tis of Thee. An earlier version by W.E.B. Du Bois may be found here.
And for an indigenous protest song written during the 1960s listen to Buffy St. Marie. This is her anthem to decolonization, updated in 2017.
Sunday, June 27, 2021
E. Tendayi Achiume, Transnational Racial (In)Justice in Liberal Democratic Empire, 134 Harv. L. Rev. F. 378 (2021). Introduction excerpt below.
"On June 17, 2020, Philonise Floyd addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations’ paramount human rights body, demanding justice for the murder of his brother and the many other Black people who have been subject to the regime of racial extrajudicial killings endemic in the United States. His testimony was part of a remarkable “Urgent Debate” — an emergency special session of the Human Rights Council reserved for extreme human rights situations. We might think of this Urgent Debate as marking a pivotal global moment in the transnational racial justice uprising that coalesced under the banner “Black Lives Matter” during the northern hemisphere summer of 2020. This Urgent Debate was unprecedented for a number of reasons. It was the first triggered by a human rights situation in a, if not the, global hegemon of our time, the United States. It was also the first and only to date concerning a human rights crisis in a country widely considered a liberal democratic paragon, for which the global human rights receivership processes, implicitly associated with U.N. intervention, could not possibly be intended or appropriate, at least from the perspective of other liberal democratic countries and observers. And finally, it was the first and only explicitly framed as concerning systemic racial injustice and anti-Black racism in a First World nation-state."
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on guilty verdict in George Floyd case
Geneva, 21 April 2021
“This is a momentous verdict. It is also a testament to the courage and perseverance of George Floyd’s family and many others in calling for justice. As the jury recognised, the evidence in this case was crystal clear. Any other result would have been a travesty of justice.
But for countless other victims of African descent and their families, in the United States and throughout the world, the fight for justice goes on. The battle to get cases of excessive force or killings by police before the courts, let alone win them, is far from over.
Impunity for crimes and human rights violations by law enforcement officers must end, and we need to see robust measures to prevent further arbitrary killings. As we have painfully witnessed in recent days and weeks, reforms to policing departments across the US continue to be insufficient to stop people of African descent from being killed. It is time to move on from talk of reform to truly rethinking policing as currently practised in the US and elsewhere.
This case has also helped reveal, perhaps more clearly than ever before, how much remains to be done to reverse the tide of systemic racism that permeates the lives of people of African descent. We need to move to whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches that dismantle systemic racism.
I recognize that in the US important steps are being put in place with that end in mind. These efforts must accelerate and expand, and must not be diluted when the public focus moves elsewhere.
Now is also the time to critically examine the context in which George Floyd’s killing took place by revisiting the past, and examining its toxic traces in today’s society. The redesign of our future can only be through the full and equal participation of people of African descent, and in ways which transform their interactions with law enforcement, and, more broadly, in all aspects of their lives.
The entrenched legacy of discriminatory policies and systems, including the legacies of enslavement and transatlantic trade and the impact of colonialism, must be decisively uprooted in order to achieve racial justice and equality. If they are not, the verdict in this case will just be a passing moment when the stars aligned for justice, rather than a true turning point.”
Link to statement here.
Monday, September 7, 2020
In an advancing his racial hate agenda, the President has ordered that critical race trainings be de-funded along with any trainings on White privilege. In a memo, government employees were told:
"All agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on 'critical race theory,' 'white privilege,' or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil."
Of course, neither training promotes the United States or any ethnicity as "evil". Yet the President called the trainings "divisive, anti-American propaganda".
Federal employees "should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these un-American propaganda training sessions."
Jeffrey Toobin has warned that if Trump is re-elected the second term will make these past four years look like constitutional compliance. Scary to think what the substitute trainings will include.
Thursday, July 30, 2020
Congressman John Lewis' funeral was held on July 30th. The Congressman left a powerful letter to the nation to be published by the New York Times. While many eulogized Mr. Lewis at his funeral, Mr. Lewis himself remains the most eloquent about his life and his goals.
Mr. Lewis was an extraordinary man by all measure. And in his letter he left us instructions for carrying on. In part, Mr. Lewis' instructs us: "Though I am gone, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart, and stand up for what you truly believe." We urge you to read the entire letter.
Though I am gone, I urge you to
answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.
Though I am gone, I urge you to
answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.
Monday, July 27, 2020
By Co-Editor Prof. Justine Dunlap, UMass Law School
Do you hear it? Strain, pause, listen, and rejoice. It’s obscured by much noise and tumult but the arc of the moral universe bent a little more towards justice last week. The U.S. Senate voted 86 to 14 on July 23rd to change the names of U.S. military bases that were named after confederate officers. The House of Representatives had already and predictably passed its equivalent, although the Senate bill gives the military three years to do this, juxtaposed to the House’s one year. The details will be worked out, but it’s a veto-proof vote.
This vote comes shortly after the Secretary of Defense banned the display of the confederate flag on military bases, albeit in a round-about manner. And on June 30th, the Republican Governor of Mississippi decommissioned its state flag, which incorporated the Confederate Flag within its design. Citizens of the state will vote on a new flag design in November.
Yes, it’s telling, demoralizing, and unjust that it has taken so long. And the arc’s movement is the result of those who are and have been drum majors for justice; those who have persevered and remained steadfast and optimistic (thank you Congressman John Lewis). And yet it remains a surprising delight that 86 members of today’s polarized Senate voted in favor. A miracle, perhaps. Or just the arc bending a little bit towards justice.
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
It would be difficult indeed to deny systemic racism in our public institutions, particularly our legal ones. This realization for some seems overwhelming, making it difficult for them know where to begin.
Envisioning our legal systems as huge and unmovable machines incapable of stopping reinforces helplessness. What is denied in that assessment is that our legal system is populated by individuals and supported by individual citizens who passively accept the policies of racism embedded in our culture.
Local elections of district attorneys and in many jurisdictions, judges, are under the control of individual citizens. We determine leadership of the courts and in prosecutions. In deciding through elections who that leadership will be, we decide what the policies and institutional culture will be. Philadelphia's citizens took control and elected District Attorney Larry Krasner. Mr. Krasner examined racist policies and took measures toward eliminating systemic bias. This included holding biased and violent police officers accountable. Mr. Krasner announced today that he intends to arrest any federal agents sent to Philadelphia by the President who behave as they did in Portland- kidnapping protesters.
For those who do not have direct experience with our legal systems, apathy might be the response to local elections of judges, court clerks and prosecuting attorneys. As we have heard as part of BLM, silence is violence. Scrutiny of candidates' policy agenda is critical. No election is too local to fail to scrutinize the bias of candidates and their willingness to "go along" with the status quo. Voting apathy is not acceptable. We must be mindful that each elected official reflects our individual and community values. Bias in all forms can be addressed.
Monday, June 22, 2020
Law professors and moviegoers may associate the phrase "Get your feet off our necks" with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. In both the documentary "RBG" and the movie "On the Basis of Sex" we hear Justice Ginsberg say "I ask no favor for my sex; all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks." Many readers may not appreciate that Justice Ginsberg was quoting Sarah Grimke, a 19th century southern abolitionist who relocated to Philadelphia along with her sister, Angelina. Following the end of the Civil War, Ms. Grimke turned her attention to feminist issues. In that context, she said: "But I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright …”
The current demonstrators incorporated the slogan substituting "knees" for "feet". Appropriately so. While the Grimke sisters were dedicated abolitionists, who themselves were criticized and threatened, they did not promote equality between Blacks and Whites. Paraphrasing Sarah's statement expands the work of the Grimke sisters. The revised phrase is apt. Not only does the Floyd video show the perpetrator's knee as the deadly weapon, but more reports have surfaced supporting that police have used the same deadly technique on other black people.
Demonstrators using the paraphrased words of Sarah Grimke to reflect current reality may finish what the abolitionists left undone. Enslaved people were legally freed but then the law was used to continue their enslavement in different forms. Equality and equity were never achieved. Now is the time to make this right.
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Editors' Note: We continue our symposium in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd's death with this post on the United Nation's response.
By Guest Contributor Prof. Gay McDougall
Senior Fellow and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence
Leitner Center for International Law and Justice/Center for Race, Law and Justice
Fordham University School of Law
Former Vice Chair, UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Former UN Special Rapporteur on Minorities
This week governments and civil society around the world joined forces to pressure the UN to adopt a resolution responding to the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed African Americans. The resolution passed on June 19th, 2020, celebrated by Black Americans as the day of emancipation from enslavement, was historic in many ways and in some ways disappointing.
The original draft that was introduced by the African Group at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, was a response to a letter from the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile, together with Black Lives Matter, the NAACP and over 670 rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Human Rights Network, and myself as Senior Advisor, wrote a Coalition Letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council appealing that it swiftly convene a special session to investigate the escalating situation of police violence and repression of protests in the United States.
“Mamie Till Mobley made a decision to open the casket of her son Emmett Till so the world could see the atrocities Black people faced in America. I want people across the world and the leaders in the United Nations to see the video of my brother George Floyd, to listen to his cry for help, and I want them to answer his cry,” said Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd. “I appeal to the United Nations to help him. Help me. Help us. Help Black men and women in America.”
The Coalition Letter warned of an “unfolding grave human rights crisis” in the United States and describes the recent police killings of unarmed Black people as well as police use of excessive force to suppress protests as violations of United States obligations under international law. It called on the U.N. to mandate an independent inquiry into the killings and violent law enforcement responses to protests, including the attacks against protesters and journalists. The letter also calls for a U.N. investigation into President Trump’s order that maximum force be used.
“We are greatly concerned that rather than using his position to serve as a force for calm and unity, President Trump has chosen to weaponize the tensions through his rhetoric, evidenced by his promise to seize authority from Governors who fail to take the most extreme tactics against protestors and to deploy federal armed forces against protestors (an action which would be of questionable legality).”
“Our greatest concern is that the violence and counter-violence are diverting the gaze of the global community away from the pain being expressed by a nation in mourning over the callous manner of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that ended George Floyd’s life while a group of police stood and watched, about the death of more than 100,000 souls from the coronavirus – disproportionately killing Black, Brown and Indigenous people – and about how injustice never ends and equality never comes. There is serious concern that the tear gas and police-induced havoc will obscure the legitimate passion of these demonstrations. The voices of the demonstrators must be heard. Their demand is that the endemic racism, hatred, fear and disparity finally be confronted.”
The call for a meaningful response from the UN Human Rights Council was joined by other human rights officials: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “we need to raise our voices against all expressions of racism and instances of racist behavior.” The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, called for serious action to halt US police killings of unarmed African Americans and a Joint statement by 45 Special Procedures Experts of the HR Council said “[t]he uprising nationally is a protest against systemic racism that produces state-sponsored racial violence, and licenses impunity for this violence.”
The CERD Committee issued a very strong statement under its Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures expressing grave concern over the “horrific killing of George Floyd” and calls for accountability and immediate and appropriate reforms aimed at eliminating racially disparate impacts or structural discrimination in the police and the criminal justice system.
In a joint OpEd signed by all the Under-Secretary Generals of the UN, they committed to take effective actions that will go beyond words.
And the African Group (which represents 54 UN Member States from the African continent) requested an “urgent debate” during the Human Rights Council session “on the current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and the violence against peaceful protest.”
In an unprecedented move, the Human Rights Council session began with a video appeal from the Special Rapporteur on Racism, Tendayi Achi---, that broke with all traditions of diplomatic double-speak in challenging the Council to not miss this chance to be on the right side of history. That was followed by an impassioned appeal by video from the brother of George Floyd.
As negotiations started on the strong draft resolution submitted by the African Group, it became clear that we were up against formidable headwinds. We were told that representatives of the US were “bullying” delegates: for example, threatening to impact the foreign assistance to their countries unless all references to the US is deleted along with the call for the establishment of a commission of inquiry—even demanding the name of George Floyd be deleted. Over the next few days, the forces against us succeeded in watering down the resolution until only its bare bones remained.
Still, the final resolution calls on the High Commissioner to prepare a comprehensive report on systematic racism, policing practices such as that led to the killing of George Floyd, violence against protesters, and related incidents globally. This is a significant step forward in a continuing struggle.
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Editors' Note: Continuing our symposium on Black Lives Matter, we publish this post for Juneteenth
By Co-Editor Prof. Justine Dunlap, UMass Law School
In the 7-10 days before Juneteenth, it has gotten a good deal of attention. For this increased awareness, we have President Trump’s scheduler to thank. That person initially selected this date for Trump’s first height-of-Covid rally in Tulsa, OK. This choice was particularly problematic because of the Tulsa race massacre that killed many black people in the affluent black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa in 1921.
Much outcry ensued over this scheduled event and now a lot more white people know a lot more about Juneteenth, the real emancipation day for enslaved African-Americans. It occurred on June 19th, 1865, when news of Lincoln’s January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation reached and was read to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. Many of us, regardless of race, had been taught that Lincoln’s document did the trick, with an occasional hint that there were some problems with that interpretation of history. Imagine being free but not being informed of that freedom for 2 & ½ years.
Once celebrated officially primarily in Texas, Juneteenth is an official state holiday in 46 states and is celebrated by parades and other festivities befitting a joyous day of independence. Juneteenth.com contains much information about this critical yet under-celebrated day. Spend some time today exploring it. It also contains the poem below by Kristina Kay Robinson.
From Africa’s heart, we rose
Already a people, our faces ebon, our bodies lean,
Skills of art, life, beauty and family
Crushed by forces we knew nothing of, we rose
Survive we must, we did,
We rose to be you, we rose to be me,
Above everything expected, we rose
To become the knowledge we never knew,
Dream, we did
Act we must
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Editor's Note: Continuing with our symposium on racial injustice, Gerard Quinn brings us this comparative perspective. Professor Quinn is Raoul Wallenberg Chair of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.
Pinning someone to the ground until their life expires is hardly a model for good community policing. There is something universally repulsive in such a gratuitous act of violence. All right-thinking people everywhere in the world recoil from it.
But violence takes many shapes. To a certain extent, the violent death experienced by our brother George is just the tip of the iceberg. That is why the clamour for change includes but goes far beyond policing. In truth, George is the latest victim of a deeper malaise that has so far defied meaningful change.
The malaise I speak of has to do with deep structural economic violence based on race. It can and does reach across the generations and leave a lasting imprint over time. The missteps of the past never really go away. They are literally encoded and embodied in how people experience their own lives.
Sometimes it is important to stand back from the familiar to assess what might have been -and what still might be with sufficient political will. The many badges of inferiority inserted into the Constitution, and implied into by it by wayward courts, were always strikingly at odds with the philosophy of the Revolution – the inherent equality of mankind. Franklin was acutely aware of the contradiction from the very beginning. What held it in place was the burgeoning economic system and the dependency of the South on cotton and the exploited labour of people of colour. The growing clamour to make ‘freedom national’ came from the move toward ‘free soil and free labour’ – an effort to deconstruct the economic models of the 1860s and to turn toward a much more radical (though classically conservative) free market model. Even before anyone heard the name Hayek, a link was being drawn between economic freedom and political liberation.
A crucial moment came and went. Toward the end of the Civil War there was a clamour to break up the landed estates (plantations) and distribute the land to those who toiled in the fields (‘forty acres and a mule’). This was no less a call to end the economic system that sustained slavery in the first place and to replace it with a system that assured some measure of basic income and employment – and the independence that normally goes with that. Some estates were broken up. But the process was thrown into sharp reverse once Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency. The cruelty of throwing people out of the land they had only just acquired must have been extremely painful.
Things could have been quite different. At around same time (1860s-1890s) Britain dealt with a similar problem quite differently. Ireland suffered a massive famine in the late 1840s. The famine was not due primarily to a lack of food on the island. Food was plentiful – but the Government insisted that it be exported. A laissez faire policy was followed regardless of its callous impact on the majority of the people who worked the land. Mass children’s graveyards can still be seen in my neighbourhood as a result. Most of the land was held in large estates. The people were treated no better than legal serfs. Over time – and due to the franchise (limited though it was) pressure grew on the British Government to break up the big estates, compensate the landowners and distribute the land to those who worked in the fields. This was done through a series of Land Acts in the 1870s – at exactly the same time that former slaves in the US were being forced back onto the land in dire circumstances.
Of course, this was never going to be enough to halt the clamour for political independence in Ireland. But this act by the British set in train (admittedly over time) a positive dynamic of change that has been largely absent for former slaves in the US. First of all, a system of national primary education (i.e., not funded by the local tax base) meant that every child could dream big and was encouraged to do so. Secondly, a stern commitment to universal suffrage meant there was no room for suppression of the vote. Third, the social model was changed from the odious Poor Law which stigmatised and blamed the poor for their own situation. Last, the policing system was re-designed to be as close to the community as possible (and crucially unarmed).
The moral of the story: Civil and political rights need to be respected. But they depend on economic and social justice to give them reality. The failure to break up the plantations and distribute the land in the aftermath of the Civil War was a culpable disaster. As the British showed in Ireland it could have worked – or at least provided a foundation for further development. A new economic and social contract is now urgently needed partly to compensate for the past and to build a more inclusive future.”
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
Editors' Note: Prof. Jeff Baker sends this post from Pepperdine's Caruso Law School, reflecting on Mr. Floyd's human rights.
The murder of George Floyd is a moral outrage that violated his human rights. Like countless Black people before him, a state agent summarily and brutally executed Mr. Floyd with no legal justification, due process, or expectation of accountability. The police officer, knowing he was on camera, acted with supreme confidence that he had the power to kill a Black man in the street.
Americans often discuss human rights abuses as events that happen elsewhere. We are apt to discuss civil rights at home, even while we’re quick to critique other nations’ human rights abuses. This may be due to convictions about sovereignty, suspicions about international organizations, or an assumed moral superiority, but I suspect we do not look to human rights principles because we have made sure our international human rights obligations are rarely legally operable. That is, the U.S. has not consented to meaningful enforcement of international human rights laws. We have chosen to trust ourselves and to reject accountability outside our vaunted sovereignty.
Human rights arise from ineffable conscience that transcends positive law, but human rights laws codify some of those ideals in operable language. The U.S. has signed and ratified a few conventions that create international human rights law, so by ratifying them, the conventions become part of the constitutional, supreme law of the land. Notwithstanding weak enforcement mechanisms, they are law, so the U.S. must reckon with its obligations.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights founds modern iterations of human rights on a bedrock: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Every convention enumerating human rights builds on this precept, including the Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by the U.S. in 1994.
Under the Convention, torture means “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person . . . punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official. . . “
The state obligation is “to take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture.” “Each State Party shall ensure that education and information regarding the prohibition against torture are fully included in the training of law enforcement personnel . . . who may be involved in the custody, interrogation or treatment of any individual subjected to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment.”
These rights are non-derogable, and “[s]tates parties are obligated to eliminate any legal or other obstacles that impede the eradication of torture and ill-treatment; and to take positive effective measures to ensure that such conduct and any recurrences thereof are effectively prevented. . . .”
Did the Minneapolis Police violate the Convention? Have our governments done enough to eradicate torture and ill-treatment by public officials?
For nearly nine minutes after being restrained in handcuffs, a uniformed police officer ground George Floyd into the asphalt, even as Mr. Floyd begged for his life, gasped for air, called out for his mother, and stopped breathing and moving. The State of Minnesota charged the police officer with murder and the attending officers with related crimes, but, by these officers’ actions, the State very likely violated human rights law against ill-treatment. Per the Convention:
States bear international responsibility for the acts and omissions of their officials. . . acting on behalf of the State, in conjunction with the State, under its direction or control, or otherwise under colour of law. Accordingly, each State party should prohibit, prevent and redress torture and ill-treatment in all contexts of custody or control. . . .
These abuses are common in our history, certainly no mystery to Black people. As social media and smart phones force all of us to bear witness, again and anew, they shock our collective conscience because these murders by state actors are affronts to indispensable human dignity. They always have been, but now we cannot look away, diminish or evade our collective burden to confront and eliminate them.
The state obligation is the people’s obligation. Because formal enforcement of international human rights laws is so weak, the bulwarks for human dignity are our democracy, politics, and the conscience of our people. Our governments must protect human rights. If we remain a self-governing republic, then we all bear a profound obligation to vote, speak, and govern to defend the inherent dignity of every person.
Sunday, June 14, 2020
Editors' Note: In our continuing symposium we hear from Minnesota through a Human Rights framework.
By guest blogger Amanda Lyons
Executive Director at the Human Rights Center, University of Minnesota Law School
In Minnesota we find ourselves grieving and challenged by yet another horrific act of racialized state violence. In the fallout, our “Minnesota Paradox” has been dramatically exposed to the world. The voice and clarity of racial-justice advocates in our community, and the incredible groundswell of support, compels us to take greater action to live up to our human-rights identity and ideals.
Out of a desire to speak out with a shared voice, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Lab published a brief statement to condemn the killing of George Floyd, to denounce the pervasive racial inequalities in our community, and to call for a rights-based response at all levels. We sought signatures from our community of 80+ human-rights faculty across campus, and the statement swiftly received over 4,000 endorsements system-wide.
In response, an alumnus shared that as a member of the Black American Law Student Association (BALSA) in the early 1980s he had worked with Prof. David Weissbrodt to research and report on the racist killings of black people by the police in the U.S. They made two submission to the U.N. Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (in 1982 and 1983) and elicited a formal response from the U.S. government.
At first I was moved by this pioneering “human rights at home” work as a testament to the University of Minnesota’s long legacy of inspiring and preparing students to engage with international human rights to advance individual rights and social justice. But it is devastating to acknowledge that nearly 40 years later, our 2020 Black Law Students Association has to lead on the same issue.
Despite the intractability of these injustices, it does seem that in this unique moment and confluence of events, the movements have created an opening for real change. Amidst the grief and turmoil here in Minneapolis, we are seeing the uprising, outpouring, and activism lead to unprecedented institutional steps:
- The Attorney General took over the case from the county prosecutor, all 4 ex-police officers were arrested, and additional charges were brought.
- The Minneapolis City Council banned chokeholds and impose an affirmative duty on police officers to intervene in the case of excessive use of force.
- The Minnesota Department of Human Rights announced it will open a Commission of Inquiry to “address systematic discriminatory practices” over the past 10 years.
- In what the Police Chief calls part of “transformational” reforms, he has withdrawn from contract negotiations with the police union and its controversial president.
- The Minneapolis Public School Board voted unanimously to terminate their contract with the MPD
- The Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the police and pursue alternative models.
The day after George Floyd was killed University of Minnesota student body president, Jael Kerandi, demanded that the University cut ties with the MPD and called for a response by University leadership within 24 hours. The next day University President Joan Gabel shocked many by announcing the University was taking immediate steps to change its relationship with the MPD and would no longer contract for additional law enforcement support. Many welcomed the announcement as a sign of bold leadership and a building block for real change.
Since then, prominent Minneapolis cultural institutions have also pledged to cut ties with the MPD, including the Minnesota Orchestra, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Museum, and beloved First Avenue, which said it will “instead work with local organizations who represent our community, and who will protect and affirm Black and Brown lives.”
These steps reflect and contribute to the growing support for reallocating funding away from policing and into services and models designed to respect and promote human rights, address root causes, and take on systemic disparities. The recent statement led by UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Prof. Tendayi Achiume lays out the strong human-rights underpinnings for this call, as do our friends at the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights.
Despite our history of racialized police violence here in Minnesota, including the killing of Philando Castile, there has never been such a resounding demand for change. Until just a few weeks (or even days) ago, calls to radically alter our relationship with the police and policing were unimaginable for most.
We see the importance to act as a University human-rights community in support of these historic efforts to advance racial and social justice in our state and country. We are committed to advocating human-rights values in our own institution and to pushing on questions of legacy and building names, diversity and equity, and the role for the University in advancing human rights in our state. In the face of a toxic national climate of violence and bigotry, the vision, energy, anger, and leadership of our students (like many before them) compels us to see the chance of real change where we thought impossible.
Thursday, June 11, 2020
Editors' Note: In our ongoing series on the impact of George Floyd's death, we post a perspective from Europe.
By guest blogger, Michael McEachrane
Visiting Researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law
I love you all. I could never have imagined that protests against systemic racism of this magnitude would erupt during my lifetime and not only in the US, but here in Europe and across the world. Last time, just a few years ago, bigots and confused individuals wanted to dismiss #BlackLivesMatter with propositions that “all lives matter”—as if morally, politically and legally that was not precisely the point. However, this time it is different. I see young Black people taking the lead as they should, but also that the crowds of protesters seem very mixed, include many white protesters and now in every corner of the world. As if to say that these issues should concern us all and are about what kind of societies and world we want to see. “No justice, no peace!” Indeed, indeed. I’m delighted that hundreds of thousands of you are recognizing that systemic racism is real, has a long history (toppling the statue of “slave trader” Edward Colston in Bristol and throwing it in the river was a clear statement of this) and that our societies are in grave need of transformation if they are to be based on principles of human dignity, equality and non-discrimination.
However, dear protesters, I also have one concern with these mass protests. And it is not the display of police brutality, even against peaceful protests. Nor the occasional looting of even small businesses. My greatest concern is that these massive pandemic defying and awe inspiring displays of solidarity for racial and social justice, eventually will blow over without a trace and merely leave a sweet (maybe even, with the passing of time, bitter-sweet) memory of unrealized potential.
Dear protesters, I’m praying that policy- and law-makers across the world will heed your urgent calls for reform. However, judging from the many past protests in developed countries in recent decades that have come and gone without a trace of substantial change, I’m not hopeful. I do not mean to put down what you are doing or to burden you in any way, still, the crux of the matter is that it seems to be mostly up to you protesters and activists to find creative ways of translating your protesting into policy-making, reform and institutional transformation. At the end of the day, without such translation, your massive protests in all their grandeur, expressiveness and beauty of spirit, may amount to little if anything at all.
Dear protesters, as much as I love you and what you’re doing, this worries me.
A related concern is that these protests will end up merely being an insignificant ripple on the surface of a sea of historically amassed racial injustices and inequities within societies in the “New World” across the Americas, throughout the developed world, including Europe, New Zeeland and Australia as well as between developed and developing countries in the organization of the global economy, who produces what, how, for who’s consumption and profit and to whose environmental costs, who-owes-who-what-and-why, the lack of democracy at the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, World bank and International Monetary Fund, who has the greatest freedom of movement in the world and who the least, who has the most access to resources, human rights, freedom from want, education, health care and so on.
Dear protesters, I’m hoping that as many of us as possible will find it in us to take your calls as a wakeup-call for the extensive work that needs to be done to create social and international orders that truly “leaves no one behind” and are guided by a sustained, thorough, meticulous care for the dignity of the human person without distinction or discrimination.