May 11th, 2020, New York – On May 1st, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute (HRI) convened more than 200 lawyers, organizers, activists, and government representatives to explore how core human rights concepts of dignity, equality, and accountability are shaping remedies for racial justice in the U.S. Symposium speakers discussed strategies to secure reparations and restorative justice, sharing perspectives from traditional litigation, legislative and policy initiatives, and movement-centered advocacy that draws on international human rights standards and indigenous practices.

“We are coming together at a time when the need for solidarity, community, and collective action couldn’t be clearer,” said JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director of HRI’s Human Rights in the U.S. Project, introducing the event. “COVID-19 exposes us to the deep need for a new approach to policymaking and governance that reckons with the historical and ongoing discrimination that permeates all aspects of American life. We must prioritize societal repair because it is clear that the social contract that we all need, and deserve, is broken.” 

This year’s virtual symposium provided a unique forum for lawyers and advocates to share strategies for organizing, communications, and legislative change that redefine justice, expand available remedies, and center healing and inclusion to tackle discrimination, bias, and persistent inequality. Speakers from the International Center for Transitional Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Movement for Black Lives, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Center for Court Innovation, among others, discussed how to leverage core human rights principles to forge institutions and approaches that foster equity. 

“In our work, we conceptualize that social healing is the central organizing principle of restorative justice," said Margaret Burnham, Director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern School of Law. Her keynote remarks emphasized the importance of truth-telling and acknowledgment of wrongs in restoring dignity to victims of historical violence and trauma. Burnham’s remarks recounted that while significant strides have been made to advance legal equality, structural injustice and systemic harms remain largely unaddressed in the United States. She underscored that “we need to demand a full accounting,” and that the “themes of transitional justice, as reinforced by human rights instruments… offer a framework within which to combat amnesia about the past and anchor struggles for justice.” (The keynote is available here).

The first panel, entitled “Foundational Concepts of Remedies and Reparations for Racial Injustice from Global and National Practice,” (view recording) distilled international human rights norms that define state obligations and require acknowledgment, accountability, redress, and compensation for rights violations. Speakers drew from examples in Argentina, South Africa, Kenya, and the Philippines, as well as national and local U.S. advocacy to highlight concrete pathways to remediate past wrongs and eliminate laws and practices that perpetuate racism and inequity. “There is no wrong without a remedy,” said Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Equity is an incredibly important part of our constitutional obligation, and key to fulfilling the rights of those who have been injured.”  Panelists discussed the transformative potential of the law, as well as the limits of a strictly legal approach, and emphasized the power of movement-lawyering and community-center advocacy.

The second session, entitled “Restorative Justice in Practice: Pathways to Racial Justice at the Local Level,” (view recording) explored how advocates and city governments are operationalizing human rights in restorative justice initiatives to improve health equity, abolish the foster care system, and deliver justice when wrongs do occur. Panelists discussed initiatives that center the perspective of individuals most impacted by rights violations, emphasized indigenous peace-making principles that drive this work, and explored the transformative potential of participatory justice. Key themes included the importance of shifting power and building initiatives that affirmatively foster inclusion and the prioritization of community needs in order to address structural causes of harm.

The CLE Symposium Racial Justice, Restoration, and Inclusion: Human Rights Principles and Practice was the 17th Continuing Legal Education symposium on human rights in the United States, a signature event of HRI’s Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers’ Network. This year’s program was co-sponsored by HRI, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, Northeastern University’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, the CUNY International Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic, Columbia Law School’s Social Justice Initiatives and Human Rights Law Review, and the U.S. Human Rights Network. The symposium agenda, recommended readings and resources, and session recordings are available here.

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The Human Rights Institute advances international human rights through education, advocacy, fact-finding, research, scholarship, and critical reflection. We work 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 the 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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