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Human Rights v Civil Rights, The Difference That Makes or Breaks Black Movements

2020 Rally in Washington D.C. Image courtesy of Sean Love.

Understanding the distinction between civil rights and human rights is important, considering the experience of Black people who are marginalized on multiple continents due to negative sentiments produced by racialism.

While civil rights are considered the rights afforded to citizens of a political territory, such as a country or state the person resides in, human rights are supposedly global in scope and are the rights that are afforded to people because they are human, and apply no matter which territory they reside in. Internationally, Black and brown people endure marginalization via phenomena such as state persecution, police brutality, over-policing, economic depravity, gentrification and community underdevelopment and disparities in the health and education systems.

Udodilim Nnamdi, a Howard University alumna, 2021 graduate of Columbia Law School and practicing attorney of law, discussed the nuances of human rights and its distinctions from civil rights with The Hilltop.

“Civil rights are the legal regime of a particular country. In the U.S., civil rights are bound by the U.S. Constitution, federal laws and state laws that are in place. Human rights provide a broader basis for not just asserting existing rights, but also the creation of new rights. Critiques of the international human rights legal regime are also necessary to ensure everyone’s voices are heard,” Nnamdi said.

“For instance, within international law and human rights, the ‘right to housing’ and the ‘right to water’ are norms, but those rights aren’t in the U.S. Constitution. It’s important to recognize that legal instruments within the U.S. and major international treaties both have racist origins,” she concluded.

Recognizing the legal instruments and understanding the unique identity Black people face as it pertains to human and civil rights is necessary for organizing as well. People of African descent experience negative social attitudes, discrimination, anti-Black racism and other remnants from the eras of segregation, enslavement and colonialism.

Rodney Smith, a graduate student in the African Studies department at Howard, shared his thoughts on the importance of African Americans and the African diaspora understanding how human rights and international law apply to them.

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“It is paramount for Black people to know the human rights framework to arm ourselves with a principal shield.  We must know the legal mechanisms that strengthen our collective march toward freedom and sustained peace,” Smith said.

“We must know our human rights because they have been cemented into the annals of human history and ratified by African nations at home and abroad alongside most of the human society,” Smith continued.

The United Nations (U.N.) recently established the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent (PFPAD) in August 2021, which will act as an advisory body to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) and serve as “a consultative mechanism for people of African descent and other relevant stakeholders” and “platform for improving the safety and quality of life and livelihoods of people of African descent.”

In December 2022, the PFPAD held its inaugural sessions in Geneva, Switzerland, where grassroots, nongovernment, public sector representatives and other human rights defenders from U.N. Member states called for the institutional protection of human rights for African descendants worldwide.

Kelly Billingsley is the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative (DPR) for Human Rights at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in Geneva, works with U.S. Ambassador Michele Taylor and the HRC and attended the PFPAD sessions. Billingsley discussed her experience working on human rights issues with The Hilltop.

“The promotion and protection of democracy and human rights around the world are in our national interest because they increase global stability, peace and economic prosperity,” Billingsley said.

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“Our work at the HRC advances these principles by promoting and establishing international human rights norms, making recommendations on how human rights violations can be addressed and demonstrating our commitment to human rights at home and abroad,” she continued.

In addition to the HRC’s work, Billingsley shared her thoughts on the newly launched PFPAD’s potential to operate as a mechanism for human rights accountability.

“The Forum brings civil society and governments together to advance conversations on racial justice and inequality, which are challenges faced across the world. Our robust participation in the Forum offers the U.S. government a chance to hear how we can further civil society’s goals and elevate their voices,” she said. 

Nnamdi shared her perspective on why people of African descent should be aware of human rights. 

“In addition to legal differences, there’s also a colloquial distinction between civil rights and human rights. As a Black lawyer, I get questioned about ‘why should we focus on international issues affecting the African diaspora, when domestic issues are more important?” Nnamdi said.  

“Why can’t the international systematic pattern of police violence happening to Black bodies be considered a crime against humanity? How is that not genocide? Human rights allow us to apply international legal definitions to our context,” Nnamdi concluded. 

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Yvens Rumbold, the executive director of Ayiti Demen, Haiti Tomorrow, a New York-based nonprofit that funds sustainable development, education and culture in Haiti, also attended the PFPAD sessions. 

“It was inspiring! I applaud the participation and commitment of delegates and organizations. Many people aren’t aware of the experiences of Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Mexicans, Afro-Colombians, Peruvians and other minorities of African descent. At the Forum, Black people from around the world recognized our shared experience and consistent human rights marginalization,” Rumbold said. 

Originally from Gonaives, Haiti, Rumbold also believes that human rights are important for Black people internationally, despite limitations within the U.N. 

“Regardless of our perception of the U.N. and its bureaucracy, it is valuable in balancing the world and addressing global issues. Despite the repeal of anti-Black laws, the end of segregation, or the African independence movement in the 1960s, people of African descent continue to be victims of the legacy of these systems of domination. Hence the importance of a mechanism for predominantly Black nations and countries with Black minorities alike, to discuss human rights at the UN General Assembly,”  Rumbold said.

Nnamdi discussed what historically Black Colleges and universities (HBCUs) could do to spread awareness about the importance of human rights for Black people, saying they can continue to serve as sites of communal learning, and information exchanges via their academic, developmental and social programs.

“HBCUs like Howard, help bring Black people together so we can have conversations as a community before we enter international, or even domestic spaces. Historically, there have been many Black thought leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, who gathered different nations to discuss the unification of their struggles. Interconnectedness is sometimes missing in our current political context when we isolate ourselves and think human rights is something that only applies to foreign nations, ” she said.

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Billingsley stressed the importance of studying foreign languages, traveling and researching for any HBCU students interested in a human rights and international affairs career.

“Whenever possible, travel and study abroad.  Learn a foreign language and use it whenever you have an opportunity.  Stay informed about global current affairs. Research different paths to international careers, whether through government, the U.N., or the private sector (business, education, NGOs – there are so many options). When you meet people in those fields, talk to them about their career and how they got where they are,” she said.

Copy edited by Nhandi Long-Shipman


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