Lawyers and activists place the Black Lives Matter movement in an international human rights context

On September 22, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) and the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights invited activists and lawyers to discuss how the Black Lives Matter movement may be better served by an international human rights framework as opposed to a civil rights one. In a nod to the movement’s origins, the evening opened with a stage-side screen displaying a Twitter feed while moderator Philip Alston, John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law and the UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, posed the night’s fundamental question: For the Black Lives Matter movement, “how significant is the international component?”

The panelists—who included Steven Hawkins ’88, executive director of Amnesty International USA; Meena Jagannath, co-founder of the Community Justice Project (CJP) in Miami; Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; Thenjiwe McHarris, formerly the Human Rights at Home campaign director at the US Human Rights Network; and Vince Warren, lawyer and executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights—all favored bringing the conversation to the international level.

Jagannath illustrated how having international bodies involved can deliver worthwhile results, however subtle. She shared the story of Israel Hernandez, an 18-year-old tased to death by a Miami police officer in 2013. Last year, after making little headway in Florida, the CJP brought the case to the UN Committee Against Torture—a move that even drew a response from the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union, which also wrote to the committee.

Coincidentally, on the morning of the NYU Law panel, the Miami Beach Police Department released a revised policy regarding the use of Tasers. “The sense from the family and the people on the ground was that that was directly connected to the international pressure that they had been receiving,” Jagannath said.

Nonetheless, panelists stressed that the Black Lives Matter movement is not solely about correcting policing practices or punishing a few officers. “It’s not a bad apple problem,” McHarris said. “It’s an institutional problem.”

Both McDougall and Warren pointed out that using an international human rights framework allows lawyers, activists, and others to directly address the larger social problems at hand, going beyond the civil rights enshrined in American law. “The important paradigm shift is that human rights includes economic and social rights, which here in the US are seen as at best aspirations,” McDougall said. To believe that housing, food, clothing, and education “should be considered public goods that accrue to all of us because we are human, and the job of government is to make sure that our basic human needs are met—that’s a transformative thought in the US context.”

Simply shifting the conversation from civil to human rights—never mind making institutional changes—poses a challenge in the US, as Hawkins noted. Here, human rights per se are discussed primarily in the academy, he said, whereas even in rural Mexico, he meets mothers of the disappeared who claimderechos humanos. He described this shift as crucial, saying it is essential to “aim beyond, frankly, the limitations of the US Constitution.”

Watch the panel below (1 hr, 42 min):


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