In historic first, UCLA Law to host international commission on human rights

The high-profile hearings will accompany events connecting social justice movements in the U.S. with human rights struggles across the hemisphere

February 24, 2023
Natalie Monsanto
Joseph Berra (left) and Kate Mackintosh
Joseph Berra (left) and Kate Mackintosh

Few Angelenos outside the human rights legal space have had opportunities to interact with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – the leading human rights body in the western hemisphere. Thanks to the efforts of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA Law, that will change this March.

The Promise Institute will host the Reimagining Rights in the Americas Conference from March 2-11, headlined by the IACHR’s 186th Period of Sessions and featuring a constellation of related events including the institute’s 2023 symposium. Across the schedule, the main throughlines highlight the United States’ complicated and sometimes fraught responsibility in the respect for, protection, and promotion of human rights - both domestically and internationally – and how to move forward.

According to former IACHR President James Cavallaro, this Period of Sessions marks the first fully in-person Period of Sessions since before the pandemic, as well as only the second time the full IACHR has participated in a public Period of Sessions in the United States outside of their headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“This is the single most important and most high-profile Period of Sessions in the United States outside of Washington, and it’s not an accident that it is in Los Angeles,” says Cavallaro, who is a visiting professor at UCLA Law and currently teaching a course on the IACHR system.

For hundreds of millions of people in the hemisphere, the IACHR is the premier international forum where they can bring their case for human rights violations and hold state parties accountable. During each Period of Sessions, IACHR commissioners hear cases on human rights brought by individual claimants as well as thematic hearings, which bring together experts and affected individuals to examine human rights issues on a systemic level.

As Promise’s Human Rights in the Americas Director Joseph Berra notes, “the commission’s decisions and reports create standards on international human rights that are the obligations of states to respect, protect and promote.”

The commission further brings cases before the Inter-American Court, the decisions of which are considered binding precedent in many countries in the Americas. Domestic civil and human rights leaders alike are pushing the U.S. to engage and abide by these standards that hold states accountable, particularly where the recognition and protection of human rights advance and expand domestic legal frameworks.

“The U.S. has failed to ratify many of the most significant conventions on human rights, including the American Convention on Human Rights, yet it is still accountable to the commission under the Charter of the Organization of American States and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man,” says Promise Executive Director Kate Mackintosh. “The U.S. history of engagement and respect for the commission’s work has been spotty, but the commission has been steadily pursuing the progressive development of the human rights frame, and its rulings carry almost unparalleled weight and symbolism in the Americas.”

We spoke with Berra and Mackintosh to discuss the upcoming commission visit and related events:

You mentioned that the commission’s presence changes the way current events are understood. What did you mean by that?

Mackintosh: “During my time leading the Promise Institute, one of our goals has been to shift the language around human rights so the public recognizes things like the situation of the unhoused, medical rights, police violence, racial injustice, Indigenous rights, environmental devastation - and more – actually are human rights. Having just celebrated our fifth anniversary, it was the right moment for Promise to orchestrate such a historic visit. With the ongoing domestic pushback against a host of issues, the opportunity to more accurately reframe serious national issues as demands for more robust human rights in the United States is a paradigm shift whose time has come.“

Why Los Angeles? Why now?

Berra: “Even before the pandemic hit, there was a sense in the human rights community that the daily lives and policy systems for many, many people would benefit from the public having greater exposure to the IACHR. A similar effort has been underway in other nations, and the idea of hosting them in Los Angeles made perfect sense. It’s hard to imagine a U.S. city that’s more connected to the Americas. You need only look at the profound diversity in LA (and at UCLA) to understand intrinsically that the IACHR should meet here.

To your question of why now: there is an ongoing narrative in the United States which furthers the idea that the many issues people are pushing back against are singular, disconnected issues of civil discontent. When you’re familiar with human rights, you see very clearly that actually, a great number of these issues are different parts of the tapestry of human rights and should be upheld by various bodies in the nation.”

Mackintosh: “The chance to bring the IACHR to Los Angeles, and to bring activist and legal actors in Los Angeles to the IACHR, meant the chance to break through this framing and call these things what they are: human rights issues. The moment is right for a paradigm shift, and UCLA with its robust intellectual tradition in the heart of Los Angeles is the right place to do it.”

What would success look like for these events?

Berra: “Great question! One of our strategic goals as an institute is to have a positive real-world impact. To help people operating or advocating in the civil rights space see how their work exists in a human rights framework could be a profound shift.

It’s not a perfect analogy but bear with me: consider how treating a patient’s symptoms individually is revolutionized when a systemic diagnosis emerges. Similarly, imagine how our understanding of policy and social issues, and the path forward, is galvanized by understanding what’s happening across fields and even across national boundaries dealing with the entrenched legacies of racism, white supremacy, settler colonialism or predatory capitalism.”

Mackintosh: “Take for instance the ongoing challenges nhoused people face in Los Angeles. One of the events we’re planning in concert with the commission’s visit is to have their Special Rapporteur Soledad García Muñoz conduct a site visit, where she will hear from people who have experienced homelessness firsthand. People have a right to participate in shaping decisions that affect them. Understanding how the situation of the unhoused is connected to a systemic human rights issue is an essential part of meaningful improvements.”

For more information about the commission’s visit, including the schedule of events and how to participate, visit the Promise Institute’s page on Welcoming the IACHR to UCLA.

The Promise Institute wishes to acknowledge this conference was made possible by the contributions of many generous sponsors, including a National Science Foundation (NSF) Conference Grant, and that the opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

With reporting by Suzi Morales.

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