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Shining a light on racial justice in the US
USC Gould School of Law

Thursday, July 8, 2021

International Human Rights Clinic students work through United Nations systems to fight systemic racism

By Carren Jao

The International Human Rights Clinic at the USC Gould School of Law joined an effort in fall 2020 by about 600 civil society groups to ask the United Nations to condemn the killing of George Floyd and investigate systemic racism in the United States. 

The clinic students' recommendations were recently cited by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet in her report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

2Ls Laura Penaranda and Ava Habibian are pursuing racial justice in the U.S., something new in the clinic’s 10 years working to seek justice under international law for global human rights concerns. The students drafted research memoranda, filing communiqués and working with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Access Now and the law firm Foley Hoag LLP.

"When you think of international human rights, you usually think of what's going on in other countries," says Penaranda, who says her work with Habibian helped clarify how international standards and domestic matters intertwine. The two are working through various U.N. processes in an effort to put pressure on the United States as it reckons with its racist systems.

"The U.N. system is not perfect, but it is a tool. There are many different strategies to think about in using it. It takes persistence, vigilance and creative thinking," says Professor Hannah Garry, IHRC’s founding director.

Habibian and Penaranda's final submission included 41 recommendations for addressing systemic racism in U.S. law enforcement. The recommendations were cited 12 times in the High Commissioner's report, which is the basis for a draft resolution now under debate by U.N. Member States.

The students' work began after the U.N. Human Rights Council issued a resolution condemning racism against individuals of African descent globally that many think didn't go far enough. Civil society groups came together as the U.S. Human Rights Network, and the ACLU, invited the IHRC to join the effort as the U.S. was assessed through the U.N.’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, an accountability effort for U.N. Member States to explain their human rights record every five years and report on their progress before the Human Rights Council and other U.N. Member States.

Since August, Penaranda and Habibian worked with the network on a letter to the Biden administration, urging the administration to participate meaningfully in the U.S.’s third UPR cycle in November and renew its commitment to human rights and adopt more than 300 recommendations by UN Member States. 

Penarada and Habibian also worked on an urgent appeal to the U.N. Special Rapporteur Clement Nyaletossi Voule asking him to investigate police brutality against peaceful demonstrators protesting racial injustice. Some of their recommendations were included in a joint statement by U.N. experts in 2021 calling for the U.S. government to act. 

Additionally, the students submitted information to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet Jeria detailing the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement against peaceful protestors, the militarization of law enforcement in the U.S. and the marked difference in U.S. law enforcement response to anti-racism protests versus the response to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.  

Penaranda and Habibian's work led to an intensive open dialogue between Bachelet and U.S. civil society groups during an in-person consultation held in February. The session included powerful statements from Black Lives Matter groups as well as testimony from victims and their families. Garry presented an expert statement on systemic racism in U.S. law enforcement; the students assisted with drafting her remarks.

For Penaranda and Habibian, the experience is invaluable. "I'm a lot more comfortable being able to take on cases tackling systemic and structural racism," says Habibian. 

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