Professor Tendayi Achiume discusses race, justice, and international law at the Center’s Annual Lecture on International Justice

(Photo courtesy of Center for Human Rights & International Justice)

Professor Tendayi Achiume delivered the Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice’s 2023 Annual Lecture on International Justice. Achiume’s lecture, titled, “Race, Justice, and International Law,” described the past and present challenges surrounding the adoption of reparation schemes to address both historical and ongoing racial injustices originating from slavery and resulting in structural systems of oppression. Achiume is currently the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor in Human Rights at the Stanford Law School. She is visiting from UCLA, where she is appointed as the inaugural Alicia Miñana Professor of Law, and the former Faculty Director of the UCLA Law Promise Institute for Human Rights. In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Achiume the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.

Achiume’s work has been at the forefront of international law scholarship on questions of race and racial justice, borders and migration. She began her talk by presenting excerpts from a draft resolution (2022) by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which called for concrete action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance. The resolution urged nations to make reparations for harms caused by slavery and colonialism, and to ensure that enduring structures perpetuating these injustices are transformed. Achiume presented how and why this resolution failed to garner the necessary votes to pass. She highlighted criticisms launched by States opposed to the draft, which rejected the notion that reparations must be made for actions that took place in the past. This argument has been termed “racial aphasia,” or a calculated forgetting of how the contemporary world is a direct result of, and therefore inextricably linked to, the violent practices of racism and colonization.

Achiume explained how this “racial aphasia” has enabled international bodies, such as the United Nations, and countries themselves to make symbolic commitments to racial equity, without putting in the work to actually reform the enduring institutions of white supremacy and racism that continue to shape our present-day social structures. She emphasized that international law must overcome this tendency to effectively render justice to those affected by the legacies of slavery and colonialism in the form of reparations. To do so, the international legal community must account for both slavery and colonialism, as well as the contemporary enduring effects of structural inequality and racism stemming from past failures to effectively address the harms they caused. In the subsequent question and answer period, Achiume discussed how the lack of enforcement mechanisms in international law has made it challenging to ensure countries make reparations for past and ongoing racial injustices. She also described how, despite the challenges and obstacles involved in developing international law to more effectively render justice, she remains hopeful and committed to realizing this change. The Center on Human Rights and International Justice was honored to host Achiume, and will continue to serve as a hub for critical inquiry into the future of international law and justice.