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© Opal Tometi

Opal Tometi: Standing up against racial discrimination

Opal Tometi is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, an international activist movement that campaigns to promote and protect human rights and dignity of Black people. She was recently in Geneva, Switzerland to participate in the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent’s 20th session (3-7 April) and civil society consultations on 5 April. She took some time to chat with the UN Human Rights Office about why international human rights mechanisms are important in the fight against racism.

1. Why are you at the United Nations Office of Human Rights in Geneva today?

Today, I’m here as a member of civil society participating in the 20th session of the UN Working Group of Experts for People of African Descent on challenges impacting Black people around the globe. I traveled to Geneva because I want to figure out a way for us to collaborate across the globe on social justice and human rights.

I believe that our communities can benefit if they know about and participate in the UN’s various human rights forums. The international framework of human rights law can help us address some of the core problems in US society – such as impunity for police killings of black people – which the national framework of civil rights law does not adequately address. And anti-blackness is global. Structural racism impacts Black people and their quality of life and freedoms everywhere. So, it’s important to strengthen solidarity with movements and members of civil society in these types of international spaces.

2. How can your movement benefit from the UN mechanisms that deal with racism?

To me and to a number of other activists from the US, we believe that the human rights movement has to evolve and understand the global implications of structural racism. This means engaging the United Nations and a variety of other human rights bodies. The reality is that anti-black racism is everywhere– globalized in large part by the legacy of the enslavement of people of African descent, the colonial legacy and the current neocolonial relations. We have to address the real facts – and we have overwhelming amount of reports, data, stories that illustrate the fact that Black people are experiencing a range of disparate outcomes in every sector of our society in every geographic context. This is not one country’s issue, but literally a global occurrence. It’s important to remember that several other human rights heroes came before us, like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who appealed to the international community and global institutions like the UN to intervene on the injustices inflicted on Black communities. It’s both heartening to recognize that we have a particular tradition of fighting for human rights at the international level, but also disturbing because we are still fighting for something so basic to humanity, which is the ability to have a quality life.

There are many important tools and resources that the United Nations has that can be of use to affirm and support oppressed communities. One that is of particular relevance to the communities I work with is the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which oversees the implementation of the human rights convention against racial discrimination. It’s meaningful to know that there is a body and robust set of documents and mechanisms that unanimously have concluded that racism is a human rights violation.

3. The Black Lives Matter movement has been picked up by many countries where black communities are stigmatized. Is there greater understanding today that racism is a human rights issue?

Yes, almost everyone knows that racism is a human rights violation, but advocates aren’t necessarily investing in strategies to address it from this legal vantage point. I want to encourage black communities everywhere to use the tools and strategies that the human rights framework offers. It’s both profound, yet incredibly simple. We are human and are entitled to a certain quality of life. We each deserve this. It is – or should be an inalienable right. And these rights are a baseline – we aren’t even talking about real justice at this point, which might mean things like reparations, etc.

We find that US domestic civil rights mechanisms and tools are often frustrating because they are limiting in terms of implementation and impact. The international human rights tools are universal standards and so they can be applied on a global scale. Our inherent human dignity is affirmed in the human rights space – whereas in the civil rights space so many people get caught up in semantics about citizenship, which can be stripped away from you. For communities that I work with who are criminalized because of race or immigration status there is no winning, but human rights says otherwise and that our lives matter.

4. You have called your movement a human rights movement, could you say more about that? How did you react to people saying that all lives matter?

Yes, I have. BLM or the movement for Black lives is not just a civil rights movement it’s a global human rights movement! It’s a human rights movement because it has to be. The unjust treatment that Black people are forced to deal with – are occurring in many nations, and in every facet of our lives. We are a human rights movement because our demands are more profound than that of the civil rights lens. Besides we are part of the global Black family. So much of our beauty and strength comes from knowing that we belong no matter where we may be.

As for the “all lives matter” as a response to Black lives matter: I simply say to assert my humanity and to stand for Black people is a stance for human rights and justice. It does not diminish or take away from the rights or the dignities or the freedoms of other people. I co-founded Black Lives Matter because I actually believe all lives matter – and so when we hear stories and read reports that make it clear that Black lives aren’t valued in the US, it’s our moral duty to change that. I’m encouraged because literally millions of people in the US and across the globe understand this and have been in the streets saying “Black lives matter” because they know without a doubt that racism is alive and well, and it must be stopped.

5. What are the practical ways for people everywhere to stand up for human rights everywhere? How can people take action?

People can stand up for human rights everywhere by addressing systemic racism in their own context. If people take the fight for justice seriously in their own country and with partners and immigrants in their community and folks in the international community, I believe that we will see human rights for all people affirmed. I want to encourage our brothers and sisters to engage more effectively with these great set of human rights international tools that reaffirm our rights so profoundly.

The reality is that anti-black racism is a global phenomenon and it looks different in each context, but if you look at the outcomes, if you listen and look at the experiences, you will see that it’s clear and it’s happening across the globe. In Brazil we are seeing more unarmed black people being murdered by law enforcement. In places like France, there are thousands of homeless Black asylum seekers from Africa forced to create their own refugee camp under bridges in Paris. They don’t have sanitation, nor food. People get kicked out. This is an example of racial injustice. Black people are being brutalized in Asia and many other places around the world. For example, in Kuwait, an Ethiopian domestic worker was thrown out of the window of a 7th floor building. The plight of Black people around the globe is horrifying and we have to do all we can to end it once and for all.

"The reality is we are here. This is our skin color. This is who we are, and we are beautiful. We need a world that respects our humanity, our inherent human dignity. That world can’t come soon enough."


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