Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute Symposium Explores Strategies for Engaging with UN Human Rights Experts
New York, June 28, 2016 – The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute convened more than 100 U.S. lawyers, law students, academics, and other international human rights experts in New York on June 24 to discuss approaches to advancing U.S. social justice advocacy through engagement with UN human rights experts.
The day-long symposium, “Engaging with UN Special Procedures to Advance U.S. Social Justice,” was the Human Rights Institute’s 13th annual Bringing Human Rights Home (BHRH) Lawyers’ Network’s Continuing Legal Education program. The signature event focuses on human rights in the United States.
UN special procedures are independent human rights experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to monitor human rights around the world, report on violations, and recommend strategies for governments and other stakeholders to improve conditions within countries. The symposium explored the opportunities that the special procedures offer to raise the profile of U.S. human rights concerns and advance advocacy efforts to address them.
“As communities throughout the United States confront pressing human rights issues, U.S. social justice lawyers are increasingly engaging with the UN and regional human rights systems, including the special procedures mechanism, to bring these concerns to international attention, and then leverage this attention to advance advocacy efforts back home,” noted Risa Kaufman, executive director of the Human Rights Institute.
Symposium participants explored examples involving advocacy with the UN special procedures on U.S-related issues including the right to water, criminalization of homelessness, solitary confinement, access to reproductive healthcare, and discriminatory policing practices, among others.
Presenters included human rights advocates, law school academics, policy experts, and a U.S. State Department representative. Leilani Fahra, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, and Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, delivered keynote addresses.
The symposium came shortly after the U.S. State Department announced that three UN special procedures will make official visits to the United States before the end of the calendar year. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly will visit the United States July 11-25. The Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons will visit December 5-16. And the Working Group on arbitrary detentions will visit at a date still to be determined. These visits come on the heels of visits to the U.S. within the last year by the Working Group on discrimination against women, and the Working Group of experts on people of African Descent.
Panelists at the June 24th symposium explored how, in the course of official country visits, U.S. civil society members provide the UN experts with background information, arrange consultations with impacted communities, and encourage meetings with government officials. Panelists also explored ways in which U.S. advocates are increasingly reaching out to special procedures to raise specific complaints of human rights concerns, and engage in more informal ways.
Through the event, the Human Rights Institute sought to develop U.S. lawyers’ understanding of opportunities, strategies, and challenges offered by the UN special procedures mechanism for strengthening rights protection within the United States. The Human Rights Institute previously published a guide for U.S. advocates on strategies for engaging with the special procedures.
The law firm of Skadden Arps hosted the event at its Times Square office. Co-sponsors include the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty; the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative; and the Center for Reproductive Rights.
An agenda is available here.
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Founded in 1998 by the late Professor Louis Henkin, the Human Rights Institute serves as the focal point of international human rights education, scholarship practice at Columbia Law School and draws on the law school’s deep human rights tradition to support and influence human rights practice in the United States and throughout the world.
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