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What of those who stood by and watched? Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the U.S.

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

“If you want the American dream, go to Canada,” Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, told audience members during Thursday night’s lecture, “Reckoning with Racial Injustice in the United States,” hosted by NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

Walker and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Sherrilyn Ifill engaged in a provocative conversation moderated by David Tolbert, president of ICTJ. Tolbert began the panel by stressing the importance of having “unsettling dialogues” among groups at opposite ends of the justice spectrum in order to foster innovative thinking, understanding, and eventually action. Coinciding with the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election, a discussion about truth, justice and reconciliation felt particularly pertinent given the President’s record on racial injustice. Trump’s recalcitrant response to Charlottesville and his public condemnations of immigrants have exacerbated racial tensions in the United States, in many ways emboldening white supremacists to act in ways previously deemed inappropriate. CNN reports that 60 percent of Americans believe racism to be a problem in the U.S., an increase of 10 percent since 2009.  

Asked to address the structural causes behind racial injustice in the United States, Walker pointed to the United States’ desperate need to display a narrative of “exceptionalism,” which has formed a history based on lies. The failure of the United States to acknowledge a history plagued by injustice, for example, has impaired the country from making any progress, he said. Truth and reconciliation requires recognizing the existence of wrongs and accepting responsibility for them. There is no clarity without truth. Furthermore, in order to remediate racial discrimination, we must no longer see racism as solely affecting African Americans, but rather as a pervasive injustice that affects every person and as a threat to our democracy.

The same CNN report mentioned above also found that “87 percent of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination in the United States, but only 49 percent of white Americans say the same thing.” This large discrepancy demonstrates the unwillingness of many white Americans to admit to widespread racial intolerance even in the presence of clear evidence.

A lecture on racial injustice in the United States was hosted by NYU Law School and the International Center for Transitional Justice. // NYU CHR&GJ

Similarly, Ifill stressed the importance of truth telling in the process of reconciling our past and present. We must undo the mythologies surrounding racial violence and look at the role of the average person in either perpetuating or rejecting discrimination. “What of the crowd? What of the people who watched?” she asked, making the point that silence or inaction in cases of racial discrimination is another form of complicity. Shame and fear produce silence, and in silence lies develop, along with a refusal to acknowledge and apologize, she said.

The panel agreed that public education and truth telling are prerequisites to precipitate activism and real reform. Justice and reconciliation are processes that begin with confronting the truth, Ifill said, followed by thinking about who you are in relation to that truth and ending with a decision about what to do with that truth and your relation to it.

In human rights theory and practice, justice and reconciliation are means through which parties reckon with past injustice, whether that be something as widespread as genocide or more micro-level disputes among individuals. Increasingly, human rights theorists have turned to reconciliation methods such as truth commissions, as seen in South Africa post-apartheid, or Gacaca Courts used after the Rwandan genocide, and more recently, through restorative justice in mediating criminal court cases and reparations to the families of former slaves of Georgetown University, for example. To demonstrate the value of reconciliation in its aim to address historical wrongs as means of facilitating present-day conflict resolution, Institute for the Study of Human Rights director Elazar Barkan’s article, “Truth and Reconciliation in History,” provides three case studies that trace the origins of reconciliation and its effectiveness in creating a shared narrative across country and ethnic boundaries.

When speaking truth to power, we must take into account the environment and institutions that enable discrimination, whether racial, economic or religion-based. Ifill urged the audience to not accept the current state of inequality and prejudice as inevitable. Police brutality and an unjust criminal justice system from Eric Garner to the Central Park Five are direct products of decisions we have made and the structures we have created that perpetuate them. In other words, our challenge is not only racism, it is also elitism and classism and the ubiquitous trends that enable widespread inequality.

Fortunately, Walker has hope, noting that he believes where we are now is the closest we have come to having a national conversation about race. So, let’s not run to Canada quite yet.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. Olivia is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad.

Trump and Erdogan: Too Much in Common

By Ariella Lang, Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University

In President Trump’s recent meeting with Turkey’s President Erdogan, Trump said nothing about the authoritarian crackdown currently underway in Turkey, nor did he condemn the attack by armed members of Erdogan’s security team on protestors outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., in which American Diplomatic Security officers were assaulted and nine people were hospitalized. President Erdogan apparently watched the melee unfold from the embassy steps.

The same week that these events unfolded in D.C., the summary judgement and sentencing was handed down in a Turkish court with regard to the case against Murat Celikkan, a journalist and prominent Turkish human rights activist. Celikkan had been accused of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization because of his involvement in the campaign to protest the crackdown and ultimate closure of the Özgür Gündem daily newspaper.

Human rights defender and journalist Murat Çelikkan // Front Line Defenders‏ // Twitter

Özgür Gündem was one of 15 media outlets that had to shut their doors after a government decree was issued on October 29, 2016, and its closure marked the silencing of the last media enterprise that had an active readership among Turkey’s minority Kurdish community. In other words, the closure of the newspaper points not only to a ruthless attack on press freedom in Turkey, but an assault on one of Turkey’s minority communities as well. Celikkan’s pending trial, and Erdogan’s assault on journalists and newspapers critical of his positions are well known. Trump’s silence in the face of such actions, his refusal to name Celikkan and other journalists under attack, make him complicit in Erdogan’s terrible human rights record.

Erdogan’s offensive against journalists has increased dramatically following the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, and his subsequent declaration of a state of emergency in Turkey, which gives him unprecedented power in issuing decrees against anyone deemed critical of his government. The result, as reported by Human Rights Watch, is that by December 2016, 140 media outlets and 29 publishing houses have been shut down in Turkey, and arrest warrants have been issued for more than 100 journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jailed 81 journalists in 2016 alone, more than any other country.

Protests over the closure of Özgür Gündem // // Twitter

Celikkan was by no means the only protester of the closure of the Özgür Gündem daily to subsequently be accused of spreading terrorism propaganda; of the 56 people who joined the campaign to protest the crackdown and ultimate closing of the paper, 50 were placed under investigation and 38 have been prosecuted thus far. Unlike many others, however, Celikkan’s sentence of 18 months in prison has not been reduced or deferred — a result of his so-called “lack of remorse” during the trial.

Celikkan is both a journalist and a prominent human rights defender. He is co-director of the Istanbul-based Truth, Justice and Memory Studies Center, and has been engaged in human rights advocacy, including working to uncover truths about human rights violations committed by the state. He has worked in particular to document and disseminate information about Kurds who during the 1990s were disappeared by the state, and whose cases remain officially unresolved.

Celikkan’s journalistic work and his human rights advocacy work go hand in hand, and in prosecuting his actions in defense of a pro-Kurdish newspaper, Erdogan’s courts are clearly attacking his human rights work as well. The Council of Europe has taken note publicly of Celikkan’s sentencing, with its commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, issuing the following statement: “I am dismayed at the sentencing of Murat Celikkan on 15 May to 18 months in prison on terrorist propaganda charges for acting as a symbolic co-editor of the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem. A prominent Turkish human rights defender, Murat Celikkan has made invaluable contributions to my Office and the Council of Europe as co-director of Hakikat Adalet Hafiza Merkezi (Truth Justice Memory Center), notably on issues relating to missing persons.”

President Trump and President Erdogan met again at the G20 Summit // Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu‏ // Twitter

In this statement, and in an accompanying tweet, Muižnieks notes the worrying anti-democratic trend in Turkey concerning freedom of expression and the freedom for human rights defenders to do their work. Celikkan himself seems all too aware of this problem. In 2012, when Celikkan was selected for a fellowship at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, he wrote of Turkey: “The never acknowledged atrocities against minorities in Turkey has not only created an environment of daily violations against them, but has also created a barricade that makes Turkey resistant to democratization. When a society does not deal with the past, when the state neither accepts its faults nor apologizes for its crimes, when perpetrators are not brought to justice, history continues to repeat itself.”

The current situation in Turkey, the violence supported and perpetrated by the state, and the suppression of human rights and freedom of speech that Erdogan endorses, suggest how quickly unresolved and unacknowledged past violence can re-emerge. That Trump helps Erdogan perpetuate this silence speaks to his own murky record on denouncing violence and attacks on the freedom of expression and the rights of journalists.

Ariella Lang is Associate Director at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.