Part of the 2012 4th World Conference on Remedies to Racial and Ethnic Inequality, the "Human Rights as Civil Rights" panel featured Dean of the Humphrey School Eric Schwartz, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment Juan Mendez, Human Rights Program Director Barb Frey, and the Honorable Judge LaJune Lange. The focus of this panel was to propose and discuss possible remedies to racial and ethnic inequality put forth by human rights treaties, institutions, and practices. The international human rights network might offer solutions that could be implemented on the domestic level.
Panel moderator Eric Schwartz provided a basic sketch of the international human rights system, including a description of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which entered into force in 1969, though the United States did not ratify until 1994.
Special Rapporteur Mendez advised that prevention requires both looking backward and looking forward. Impunity, he cautioned, renders future action in opposition to violence impotent. In other words, a solid foundation of accountability is necessary for prevention of human rights violations, including racial and ethnic inequality. While certain levels of discrimination might be written off, it is important to remember than genocide is the extreme end of a continuum of discrimination, and movement along the continuum occurs more quickly than we like to believe. Mendez also discussed the role of transitional justice in reckoning with legacies of inequality and injustice. Transitional justice mechanisms "oblige states to the truth." Not only do these mechanisms get the truth out, but they also break cycles of blame, foster the individuation of guilt, and work toward group reconciliation, according to Mendez.
Professor Frey first critiqued the title of the panel, suggesting that the distinction between human rights and civil rights is a false one and actually undermines the realization of rights generally. She then proposed the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as a site in which remedies for discrimination could be sought. The Committee utilizing creative methodologies, including states reports, thematic debates, early warning procedures, and general recommendations, to delve into worldwide issues related to discrimination. That said, the Committee is only as effective as activists make it. To bridge the gap between international and domestic politics, domestic activists must take part in Committee proceedings and start to use Committee language in domestic settings. The Western Shoshone peoples have found the Committee to be a useful forum for voicing their concerns about US domestic policy regarding land rights. In this case, the Western Shoshone people have found calling upon international human rights bodies, such as the Committee, to be more effective practices than going through domestic channels alone.
Judge Lange highlighted the problematic historical dimension of racial discrimination and remedy discourse in the United States. We tend to have a selective memory about historical figures and issues. Abraham Lincoln suggested that free African American men practice voluntary self-deportation as a remedy to the racial discrimination. Additionally, Lange pointed to the segregation of US troops during World War Two, including the particularly striking example that white troops would be fed first, then POWs, then the black troops. Lange then pointed to a local historical exemplar, Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey worked tirelessly to ensure that principles of nondiscrimination would be included in the 1948 Democratic platform. Ultimately, Lange pointed to the fact that we can look to these historical figures, if we consider their stories in whole rather than in convenient part, and "take a page from their books on how to get the job done."
The panelists set forth a variety of possible courses of action to undertake to start to remedy racial and ethnic inequality, seeking guidance from the international system as well as from historical success stories.
Written by Whitney Taylor.