Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

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Centre for International Governance and Justice: News and Events

Equal Justice Initiative

Jim Crow Doors: Equal Justice Initiative

This week the Centre hosted the Human Rights Tertiary Teachers Workshop. Co-convened by John Tobin (University of Melbourne), Andrew Byrnes (University of New South Wales) and CIGJ Director, Hilary Charlesworth, the Human Rights Tertiary Teachers annual workshops are fantastic opportunities to catch up with colleagues and hear about recent research, teaching innovations, and hurdles encountered. A highlight of this year’s event was Bryan Stevenson’s keynote address. Bryan is Director of the Equal Justice Initiative at NYU’s Law School and a long-time campaigner against capital punishment and for the rights of prisoners in the US. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a prison population that has ballooned from 300,000 in the early 1970s to 2.3 million today.

As is the case in Australia, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians, the story of imprisonment in the US is one of systemic racial discrimination:

In America, one out of every three black men born in 2001 will go to jail or prison if current trends continue. Black men are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. Nearly a third of black men in Alabama have lost the right to vote after being convicted of a felony. Without reform, it is estimated that 40% of the black male population in the State of Alabama will be permanently disenfranchised due to a criminal conviction.[1]

In his address, Bryan argued the power of narrative is ignored in traditional legal training, and that the failure to construct powerful narratives is the biggest problem we face in advancing social justice and human rights. We need narrative in order to make sense of particular human rights violations or, as Bryan put it, ‘to explain the incomprehensible’. We can’t understand the treatment of juvenile offenders in the US, for example, while ignoring the politics of race and fear that legitimates sentencing so many black children to die in prison under ‘life without parole’ sentences. In turn, this politics of race and fear can’t be understood in abstraction from America’s history of racial terror: campaigns of lynchings and violence that continued well after the abolition of slavery and whose impacts are still deeply felt.

Bryan called on human rights lawyers and teachers to draw on empirical research and socio-political investigative work – in addition to their traditional skills of interpreting and applying the law – to create explanatory narratives capable of  challenging systemic injustice. This is something that the Equal Justice Initiative has done in its recent report, ‘Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror’.

Human Rights Commission under attack again

After a period of sustained attacks on Human Rights Commission President, Gillian Triggs, it was revealed last week that Attorney-General George Brandis sought the resignation of Professor Triggs two weeks before the release of the Commission’s report on children in immigration detention. Hilary Charlesworth has again spoke out in support of Professor Triggs: Hilary’s interview on ABC Radio’s PM program is available here.

[1] Equal Justice Initiative: