By Taryn Marks
The last day of the 2017 IALL Annual Course opened with the Keynote Address, given by Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a highly-regarded academic who serves as the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory School of Law, an Associated Professor at Emory College of Arts and Sciences, and as Senior Fellow at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.
Dr. An-Na’im’s talk, entitled “Dialectic of Civil Rights and Human Rights in International Law and Domestic Law and Policy of the USA: Perspectives of an African American Muslim Speaker” (say that three times fast!), began by challenging the United States’ policies and practices on human and civil rights. Using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its proclamation that human rights should be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” as a foundation for his speech, Dr. An-Na’im argued that the United States faces a fundamental crisis in how it currently deals with human and civil rights.
Human rights and civil rights often interact and the full enforcement of both sets of rights can result in synergies—but, Dr. An-Na’im said, in ways that are not immediately obvious. Perhaps because of this distinction, the United States often differentiates civil rights and human rights, to the detriment of human rights. Civil rights in the U.S. offer protection to citizens and lawful residents only, at times not even accomplishing that. Dr. An-Na’im pointed to racial discrimination in the United States as an example of the failure of civil rights within the country, condemning the U.S. in no uncertain terms.
The U.S. often points to the strong protection granted to civil rights in the country as evidence of its success in human rights. Dr. An-Na’im not only disagreed with that statement, but says that the two are part of a two-way street. Human rights should apply to “all human beings by virtue of their humanity and without requirement of membership of any group or class.” Unfortunately, Dr. An-Na’im argued, the U.S. fails to apply human rights within its own borders, despite the propaganda that it promotes internationally regarding human rights. This can be seen not only through the United States’ dismal record on civil rights, but also in the United States’ reluctance to sign on to international treaties related to human rights. As one of many examples, Dr. An-Na’im pointed to the fact that the U.S. has not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Ultimately, a country should have both strong civil rights and human rights. Civil rights and human rights should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, in that the success of one should not automatically mean the success of the other. In fact, Dr. An-Na’im said, strong protection of both civil rights and human rights creates exceptional synergies.
This recap touches only the surface of the many issues, controversies, and ideas that Dr. An-Na’im brought up in his keynote address. I strongly encourage everyone, even those who attended the conference, to watch his address in order to get the full breadth and depth of his arguments.