Racial Equality is a Human Right

By Rym Khadhraoui


“I am French, of African descent, queer, Muslim (…) and I’m a member of the afro-feminist and intersectional group Mwasi.” Chrystell’s words were part of a series of speeches on October 31, 2015 during the “March for Dignity” in Paris. This march was not only aimed at opposing police violence against racial minorities in France, but more broadly at shedding spotlight on systemic racism in the country. This was the first time since 1983 that such an event took place about racial issues. It was possible because a collective of women (MAFED or Women’s March for Dignity) launched it, with the support of Angela Davis.

These organizations were in some ways inspired by the human rights framework as they were claiming “humanity” for the oppressed part of the French population. On the same rhetoric, humanity remains at the core of anti-racist movements in the U.S. In 1968, when advocating for improving the economic and social conditions for African-Americans during The Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King stated that “we moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”

The struggle to apply and respect human rights is commonly seen as a concern for every country except for the wealthy Western ones. Nonetheless, the U.S. and French associations brought the framework “home”, by linking it with the movement for racial justice and using the procedures of institutions like the United Nations. While rooting in the international human rights standards and mechanisms, those organizations had to adapt the framework to their goal of inclusivity, using an intersectional grid involving different levels of systemic oppressions as gender, sexual orientation, class or religion.

France and the U.S. are projecting themselves as human rights champions around the world, and therefore have the responsibility to respect those norms within their own societies and populations. As the co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Opal Tometi put it, “queer, trans, migrant, formerly incarcerated, disabled and all of us… are more committed than ever to champion the scope of the human rights agenda that we deserve.” Tometi also proclaimed that the battle of BLM is “enshrined” in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In this Oct. 10, 2015 file photo, a man wears a hoodie which reads, “Black Lives Matter” as stands on the lawn of the Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington during a rally to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. A new poll shows a majority of American young adults, including white youth, support the Black Lives Matter movement. The support from young white adults is an increase from the beginning of the summer and the first time in the poll a majority of black, white, Hispanic and Asian young adults expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Human rights framework can both be seen as a principle of humanity and dignity for each individual, and as the international human rights standard binding those countries. It was clear for the movement for racial justice in the 1950s-60s that this will bring international coverage to the struggle, especially when reaching the multilateral institutions. Malcolm X realized that “those grievances can then be brought into the United Nations and be discussed by people all over the world.” The goal was to transform their battle for racial justice into a “human problem,” rather than solely an African American or a national one.

More than half a century later, the UN Human Rights Council in May 2015 recommended the U.S. during its periodical review to eliminate racial discrimination and the use of excessive force in policing. Furthermore, victims of police violence like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown families, along with civil society organizations, would bring their claims to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in Geneva and the UN Committee Against Torture.

Comparatively, in several cases, France was condemned by the European Court for Human rights for police violence occurring during arrest or detention on the basis of the article prohibiting torture and mistreatments. Using the same procedures available in the international human rights framework, in July 2016, Lilia Charef, legal council of CCIF, the main association fighting islamophobia in France, was heard in Geneva in the UN Human Rights Committee. She alerted on islamophobia targeting especially Muslim women in France, not only through the political discourse but also through societal discriminations in housing, work or access to health. Implying an intersectional analysis, as suggested by BLM co-founder, Charef described that Muslim women were part of “three socially discriminating categories: religious, racial and gender” and called for alternative models of emancipation for women.

Human rights can also be found in the past, when there was question of remedies. A bill that has not yet passed, titled the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act mentions “gross human rights violations on African slaves and their descendants” as a claim for remedies. When BLM was invited by the General Assembly, the question of remedies also rose in the debate, as every human rights violation calls for remedies. Comparatively, in a report published in March 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance of the Council of Europe called the French authorities to carry on the debates of reparations, beyond strictly financial remedies, for victims of the slave trade and France’s colonial past.

Civil society actors in both countries found the human rights framework as an effective advocacy tool to remind Western powers like France and the U.S. of their obligations towards their own populations. Racial inequality has consequences of civil and political rights, on social and economical ones; the goal for justice, dignity and humanity is then logically rooted in human rights standards.