faculty & experts
19 March 2021

Fighting for Racial Justice Beyond America’s Borders

On 17 March 2021, the Graduate Institute and the United States Mission to the United Nations in Geneva organised an online event on racial justice, discussing what actions America needs to take domestically in order to be a more credible advocate for democracy and human rights in the multilateral arena.

In the context of the U.S.’s reengagement with the UN Human Rights Council, Desirée Cormier Smith, Senior Advisor in the Bureau of International Organisation Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, opened the discussion stating, “American leadership on human rights must begin at home in order to be credible abroad”. Confronting systemic racism is a necessary battle, she continued, “as it is for the soul of what a nation stands for, how it sees itself and how it is viewed by the world”.  

Professors of International History and Politics Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou and Davide Rodogno moderated the panel discussion with Opal Tometi, Co-founder of Black Lives Matter and Founder of Diaspora Rising; Eric K. Ward, Executive Director at the Western States Center and Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Centre; and Gay McDougall, Senior Fellow and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Fordham University School of Law, and former Vice Chair and 2021 candidate for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.    

According to Opal Tometi, “Foreign policy is not just about the face a country puts out to the world. It is about projecting what is inside of that country to the world”. Given the systemic nature of racism, she stressed that “unless the United States intentionally, consistently and tangibly grapples with institutionalised racism and the devaluating of Black lives within its own borders, it will have only marginal impact on the global stage”.

“The inability to address unconscious bias within American society is the greatest national security threat”, said Eric W. Ward. In his view, the white nationalist movement in the United States “has used the disruption and cohesion to tap into social anxieties, public alienation and economic inequality to wreak its havoc domestically and internationally”. He underlined that we have to stay mindful of the ways in which the scourge of white supremacy morphs over time. According to Mr. Ward, “The first step to effectively addressing this authoritarian challenge of white nationalism is to not forget the lessons of our domestic past”.  

Recalling W.E.B. Du Bois’s civil rights actions and hopes, Professor McDougall underlined the importance for the entire international community to commit to end racial discrimination. In this sense, Opal Tometi stressed that “no matter what we call it – if it’s Black Lives Matter, if it’s Fees Must Fall in South Africa, if it's #FreeHaiti in Haiti – I believe that we have a duty, we’re all to be engaging in these types of multilateral instruments in order to achieve justice for Black people, no matter what country we’re in, no matter what context we find ourselves in”. 

Photo credit: UN photo/Violaine Martin