Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute Symposium Explores Effective Strategies to Advance Racial Justice in the United States
June 22, 2018, NEW YORK – The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute brought together 140 leading U.S. lawyers, activists, and academics, along with progressive federal and local government representatives on June 1 to share strategies to advance racial justice within a domestic and global context increasingly hostile to human rights. The full-day symposium marked the 15th symposium on human rights in the United States, a signature event of the Human Rights Institute’s Bringing Human Rights Lawyers’ Network.
“Despite longstanding impediments to realizing human rights in the United States, human rights lawyers and advocates have been at the forefront of efforts to hold the US accountable to global human rights standards and push forward an affirmative vision of what an equal and inclusive America could look like, stated JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Human Rights in the U.S. Project Director at the Institute, “but the rollbacks in protections we now see on a daily basis bring a new urgency to efforts to challenge discrimination in all its forms, and to use all the tools at our disposal.”
The Symposium, Advancing Racial Justice and Human Rights: Rights Based Strategies for the Current Era, aimed to develop U.S. lawyers’ understanding of opportunities and challenges in implementing human rights principles of non-discrimination, equality, and participation. It was also a space to evaluate lessons learned from the successes achieved by the domestic human rights movement over the past two decades, and to chart a path forward at a time when human rights standards are permeating movement building, litigation, and policy advocacy to address individual and structural racism and discrimination.
“Human and civil rights lawyers must recognize that the old playbook might not be sufficient ... and focus on new strategies ... coordinating across our organizations and institutions,” emphasized Todd Cox, Director of Policy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who opened the day with a call for human rights advocates to challenge the increasing rhetoric and policy grounded in misogyny, nationalism, and discrimination at every opportunity.
Panels explored how human rights advocacy must pivot to ensure that core human rights are protected and respected. Advocates from international NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, national legal organizations, and local advocacy groups, including the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Community Justice Project, and Black Women’s Blueprint, highlighted the ways that human rights have been integrated into their work. Law school academic-activists from Howard, Berkeley, and Universidad Interamericana en Puerto Rico, as well as the Chair of the US Civil Rights Commission, spoke about the potential, and limitations of rights-based approaches in addressing police violence and advancing basic economic and social rights.
Participants discussed a range of ways to foster collaboration to ensure that recommendations from the global level inform local advocacy, highlighting the value of the UN and the Inter-American Commission as “echo chambers” for local concerns. “Human rights treaties are the highest obligations our government has and our work is to remind government officials that they cannot afford to be dismissed,” emphasized Marcia Johnson-Blanco, Co-Director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and Chair of the US Human Rights Network Board. Throughout the day, panelists shared ways that human rights principles and international accountability are shaping policy demands related to a wide range of issues including criminal justice, maternal health, housing, economic justice, voting, indigenous rights, and water, and identified recommendations for future advocacy.
Looking forward, speakers highlighted the value of finding and leveraging unexpected allies, working with progressive local actors in fighting back against rights regressive federal policies, and the key role that human rights education and movement building play in advancing human rights accountability, as well as the ways that lawyers can support these efforts alongside more traditional litigation and policy advocacy.
The law firm of Cleary Gottlieb hosted the event at its One Liberty Plaza office. Co-sponsors included the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Latino Justice PRLDEF, the US Human Rights Network, and the University of Pennsylvania Transnational Legal Clinic. The full agenda is available here.
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The Human Rights Institute advances international human rights through education, advocacy, fact-finding, research, scholarship, and critical reflection. It works in partnership with advocates, communities, and organizations pushing for social change to develop and strengthen the human rights legal framework and mechanisms, promote justice and accountability for human rights violations, and build and amplify collective power.
Founded in 1998 by the late Professor Louis Henkin as the anchor for human rights within Columbia Law School, the Human Rights Institute promotes engagement and knowledge of human rights within the law school, throughout the University, and around world. Across the many substantive areas of its work, the Institute builds bridges between scholarship and activism, develops capacity within the legal community, engages governments, and models new strategies for progress.
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