Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Achiume ’08 Discusses Role as United Nations’ Special Rapporteur

In September 2017, Professor Tendayi Achiume ’08 was named the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. Achiume, who is also an Assistant Professor of Law at UCLA, received her B.A., as well as her J.D. from Yale. In law school, she participated in the Lowenstein Clinic, and after graduating, she clerked for Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and Justice Yvonne Mokgoro on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. She then received a Bernstein International Human Rights Fellowship to work at Lawyers for Human Rights in Johannesburg, where she provided legal services to refugees and migrants and contributed to various advocacy projects. Following her Bernstein Fellowship, Prof. Achiume was a litigation associate at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. In 2016, she was appointed to co-chair the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law. On November 1, 2017, Prof. Achiume began her new position at the U.N. In an interview with the Schell Center, she described her experience thus far and her goals for the job.

Tell us about your new role—what are your responsibilities in this position?

The job has three dimensions to it. First, the Special Rapporteur plays a critical role in raising global awareness about the nature and prevalence of different forms of racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, and so a lot of the work involves fact-finding, visiting different countries and then publicizing the findings from those country visits. As Special Rapporteur, I can receive communications from NGOs, individuals—anyone who makes allegations about issues of racial discrimination or related intolerance. I can then engage in communication with governments with respect to those issues, and those findings are also published.

The second part of the job is contributing to the development and enforcement of global frameworks relating to racial discrimination and intolerance. Twice a year, I submit thematic reports focusing on a specific issue—once to the Human Rights Council and once to the General Assembly. These reports might focus on any number of urgent issues such as national origin, racial discrimination against refugees and involuntary migrants, or the rise in xenophobic violence fueled by nationalist populism.

The third piece of the job is providing a platform for knowledge exchange between different stakeholders—governments, academics, lawyers, activists, survivors of human rights violations—to come together and exchange ideas about how best to unlock the potential of global human rights frameworks governing discrimination and intolerance. I can convene conferences, expert workshops, and other events that allow for this sort of collaboration.

What specific projects will you work on as Special Rapporteur?

My own academic research has focused on the intersection between international migration and racial and xenophobic discrimination. As a result, I anticipate at least a partial focus on projects related to these issues. That said, over the next six months, I want to focus on orienting myself in the position and setting my agenda. To me, success in this role is contingent on meeting the needs of the key constituencies of the mandate: those directly impacted by discrimination and intolerance around the globe and those working to combat this discrimination and intolerance. So in the next few months, I will hold consultations with representatives from different social movements, civil society organizations, government actors, and many other stakeholders, and these consultations will inform my agenda.

In June of next year, I will have to present my first thematic report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, so that’s something else I have begun to work on.

What are your goals for your time as Special Rapporteur?

This is a very difficult question to answer, given the profound challenges that racial and xenophobic discrimination pose today. One purpose of the agenda-setting consultations I mention above will be to develop concrete goals that are tied to the most pressing needs.

At a personal level, I really want to do my best in this job, and an important part of that means bringing global frameworks closer to the people on whose behalf these frameworks are supposed to operate. Oftentimes, the global framework governing racism, xenophobia, and related intolerance is deployed in ways that leave behind those who are most vulnerable to discrimination and intolerance. I want to close that gap as much as I can and help to make sure that the law on the books actually operates in the service of people on the ground.

How has your past work affected your understanding of or approach to the position?

My background is a combination of practical and academic experience. I’ve always had an interest and a commitment to pragmatic considerations—how law works on the ground, how is it enforced, how we can make it work better. But I also have an interest in theory and ideas. At UCLA I engage in academic research and in doctrinal teaching, but I also supervise the international human rights clinic. My dual interest in theory and practice will deeply inform my work as Special Rapporteur. For instance, with the thematic reports, there’s a lot of space to think creatively about how the law might be transformed in its content or implementation, and I’m looking forward to that. With the fact-finding, reporting, and other aspects of the job, it will be exciting to do more of the practical work that I enjoy from a lawyering perspective.

What new challenges does the position present and how will you address them?

There are challenges that the work presents for me and my own life, and there are challenges facing the mandate, or any actors who are working to combat racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. With respect to the latter, the extreme political polarization that characterizes a lot of global discourse right now on migrants, race, national belonging, religion and related issues deeply complicates the work of my mandate. Racist and xenophobic discourse has reached an especially frightening pitch in the United States and all over the world. Trying to advocate for change and for human rights generally in an environment that is politically polarized along lines that implicate racial discrimination and xenophobia is going to be a very big challenge. The work is made even more difficult by the current challenge that resurgent nationalist politics poses to global human rights frameworks.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. However, I take some comfort from the fact that alongside poisonous nationalist politics there is global resistance to insular politics that pit racial or religious majorities against minorities. I am committed to an approach to my work that draws on and reflects this opposition at the grassroots level, and that is committed to more inclusive, just communities.

What can individuals do to combat racism, xenophobia, and intolerance?

Well, they can stop being racist, xenophobic, and intolerant. They can also stop supporting structures that promote racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. I don’t know how else to answer that question other than to say exactly what I just said. A big part of the challenge is for all people—not just those on the receiving end of discrimination and intolerance—truly to understand how different forms of intolerance and discrimination work, and to understand what role they play in perpetuating these problems. Nobody wants to admit that they support discrimination and intolerance, yet too often people who condemn these phenomena are complicit in perpetuating them. In my mind, the recent US presidential election is a clear example of this. The fight against racism, xenophobia, and intolerance is one that should be fought at a personal or individualized level as well.

I also would suggest that people get involved in the many organizations that are doing really important work on racial discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance and are driven by the people who are most impacted by these concerns.

How has your time at the Schell Center informed your current work?

I think of the Schell Center as one of my human rights homes. It’s filled with many of my mentors and peers who really are the community that makes a lot of the work that I do possible. When I was in law school, Jim Silk was my clinical professor of human rights, and he remains a very important mentor in my life. But for the support that he and other members of the Schell Center have shown me, I don’t think I would be doing the work that I am doing today. A lot of the human rights work that I did in law school was funded by the Schell Center, and all of that work was useful and necessary for opening doors after law school. This material support was invaluable, but the hardworking, warm, intelligent, driven people who are part of the Schell Center were even more important than those resources. They’ve all been formative to my own identity as a human rights advocate and scholar.

Do you have any closing words to share?

It’s a difficult time to be doing human rights work, but it is in difficult times that human rights work is most urgent. I’m energized and excited and humbled to have the opportunity to try and make a difference in this role, and it’s going to be my goal to just do the work the best I can.