George Floyd’s killing breathed life into black liberation, says Howard Law Professor Hansford

Justin Hansford is a professor of law at Howard University, the highly prestigious historically black university founded in 1867 in Washington, D.C, the alma mater of the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall; the first African American Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris; and many other luminaries, including Congressman Gregory Meeks. Speaking at a briefing in Washington DC, Hansford emphasizes the importance of a people knowing and acknowledging their roots among other issues affecting people of African descent. Sadiq Yishau captures his points. Excerpts: 

Early inspiration 

“A people without knowledge of their history, their origin, and their culture is like a tree without roots.”  These are some of the words shared by Marcus Garvey that helped me decide early on in my life to dedicate as much energy as I possibly could to the fight for black liberation. 

Forum for People of African descent 

Today I have been honored to have been granted the intriguing assignment to help launch the new and historic United Nations Permanent Forum for People of African Descent.  I see this work first and foremost as the realization of a dream that has been held by black people around the world for many generations, a dream that was reinvigorated in the activism that sprouted up in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in 2020.  

As my colleagues on the permanent forum noted in our statement which we released earlier this morning in honor of the second annual Day for People of African Descent, this permanent forum will be a mechanism committed to following Garvey’s path, which he blazed over 100 years ago in the campaign for Pan-Africanism and human rights for people of African descent around the world.  Garvey’s path is not the only one that we follow today as we launch our work to support human rights in the African diaspora. 

African American legacy 

The legacy of African Americans involved in global affairs that have emerged from Howard is also illustrious.  It includes Ralph Bunch, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and an integral part of the creation of the United Nations itself; ambassadors such as Clyde Ferguson, ambassador to Uganda; Horace Dawson, ambassador to Botswana; and legal activists such as Pauline Murray and Lisa Crooms-Robinson.  I am also the founder and executive director of Howard’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, our flagship institutional home for human rights and civil rights research and activism. 

The involvement of our center is key because I intend to include the center’s approach to fighting for civil rights and human rights in my work at the permanent forum.  At the center, we’re known for bringing an approach that includes a commitment to scholarship that is going to fight the battle of ideas in the ivory tower; a commitment to movement lawyering, which includes legal activism, lawsuits, and policy advocacy for civil rights; and also a commitment to supporting grassroots movements and community organizers so that we can continue to build community in our diaspora. 

Again, there are many – there are many scholars that have collaborated with Howard University over the years, scholars in the field of human rights, scholars like Gerald Horne, scholars like Derrick Bell, some of the scholars I admire the most.  There are lawyers like Gay McDougall and Randall Robinson, who have been pragmatic advocates for human rights on a global scale.  And of course there are activists like Kwame Ture, who have come out of Howard University, who have continued to engage in global advocacy for people of African descent. 

This nomination and this election has allowed me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world who are continuing that legacy of fighting for human rights for black people all over the world, and I’m very proud to work alongside them to fulfill the mandates of the permanent forum.  

The mandates

There are nine mandates that – which we were given by the United Nations to fulfill, and it’s – it’ll take a long time to describe them all in detail, but I’m going to describe them very briefly for you. 
Number one:  To contribute to the process of ensuring that people of African descent have access to their full civil rights and human rights wherever they are located all over the – all over the world;
Number two:  To provide advice to members of the UN community, including special rapporteurs, members of the General Assembly, members of the Human Rights Council, and others who need consultation or seek consultation when it comes to rights involving people of African descent;
Number three:  To help to collaborate to create a new declaration of rights for people of African descent;
Number four:  To explore best practices, challenges, and opportunities when it comes to advocacy for people of African descent;
Number five:  To monitor and review the evolution and progression of the Decade for People of African Descent;
Number six:  To prepare and disseminate information to the general public about human rights as they involve people of African descent; 
Number seven:  To continue to coordinate with other agencies in the UN, working together to support human rights; 
Number eight:  To gather more data on the diaspora; and 
Number nine:  To offer recommendations and respond to requests that will be delivered by the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council involving issues pertaining to people of African descent.

Living up to examples   

So it’s my intention to ensure that over the course of my term as a member of this permanent forum I live up to some of the examples set before me as a member of the Howard University community, both an alumni and a professor and an admirer of many of the people who have paved our way when it comes to advocacy for Pan-Africanism and the rights of black people throughout the world.  
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that we live in a world house where people from all parts of the world are connected in what he called a beloved community.  It’s my intention, with your help, to ensure that people of African descent fulfill their greatest potential and continue to make sure that they contribute to the development of our global community by fully exploring our advocacy for human rights to the utmost.    

One of the elements that I’m focused on in the promotion of human rights for people of African descent is political rights. And I was talking to my students this morning in our class on human rights about the ICCPR and the need to engage in data collection so that we are aware of what is happening throughout the diaspora and ultimately so that we can make appropriate recommendations. So thanks for making me aware of that situation. It’s certainly something that we will continue to explore.   

One of the things I’m very proud of at Howard is that we have a class of students who will be working with me on issues impacting the permanent forum and collecting data and drafting reports and even advocating for human rights issues for populations all across the continent, all across the world. So please continue to be in touch with me about that issue. I’d love to hear more about it and continue to gather data so we can make appropriate recommendations.   

I am very excited about what we’re planning to do with the permanent forum during my term. I have two and a half years left and I plan to make use of every single day to the best of my ability. We have our opening meeting on December 5th through December 9th, 2022. We have a second meeting that will be taking place in June of 2023. Both of those meetings will be public. I hope that you continue to cover those and continue to engage with us in a very robust way.  

Commitment to grassroots 

Also, I should say that all the members of the permanent forum are deeply committed to ensuring that there is as much grassroots participation as possible. So whoever is in the media, whoever is in the audience who is interested in working with the permanent forum, whether that involves gathering data on human rights violations that are affecting black people throughout the world, whether that involves trying to get the UN to become more aggressive in its support for the human rights of people of African descent, or whether it involves advocating for us to take on certain issues, please feel free to reach out to me either through Howard University or going online and looking up the website for the permanent forum, because we really are trying to be as open and participatory as possible. So please keep in touch and please stay tuned in for more work ahead. 

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