November 29, 2021

By Anna Garbar, UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Co-Chair

Professor Tandayi Achiume is a fierce advocate for Human Rights and has worked on many different projects over the years, addressing the unique challenges that different communities face. In our conversation we touched on the rights of migrants, incarcerated populations, racial discrimination and the role that institutions play in keeping the current, not so human rights focused, structures alive.

Like many Human Rights advocates, Tendayi’s passion for Human Rights work was not born out of a single life changing event. She has always felt that our world has been characterized by inequality and injustice and she wanted to be a part of the solution as opposed to being a contributor to the problem. 

Tendayi recognizes that Human Rights work can be very frustrating, overwhelming and at times you can feel defeated. It is also true for all types of work where you are devoted to your mission and you are trying to make the world a better place. If we take Climate Change work as an example, there is no way you can confront the reality of the depths of the problems that the world is facing without feeling defeated. Then you ask yourself - “ what is the alternative?”, and realize that an alternative where you do nothing is not acceptable to you. Tendayi’s motivation comes from wanting to contribute to a fight for positive change, even if the positive change that we are able to achieve at the end of the day is miniscule compared to all of what is left to achieve.

At the beginning of her career, Tendayi focused on the Human Rights of migrants. She has always been fascinated by borders, mobility and migration, and the interaction with Human Rights, because many rights are the weakest at the border. The issues that migrants are facing are endless. We often think of Human Rights from a moral perspective as being the entitlements of all human beings, but from a legal perspective, getting those rights oftentimes comes down to citizenship status, and one’s access to those documents. There is a lot of work to be done within the Human Rights frame to ensure that the human rights of non citizens are given the kind of recognition and effectiveness that are required for us to meaningfully talk about human rights, because too often nation states use citizenship status as a way of denying rights in ways that shield them from greater scrutiny.

Tendayi shared that her work is often driven by the connections she makes with the communities she works with and the priorities they identify. In her work, she has often produced reports that focused on bringing a Human Rights analysis to incidents of racial discrimination at the border just because of how neglected and how subordinated migrants and refugees are in the Human Rights context. Her current work as a Special Rapporteur is focused on trying to make sense of the ways in which human beings have fundamentally different life outcomes on the basis of their race of their ethnicity of their nationality, and devoting energy to pushing back against discrimination and subordination on on those bases.
Tendayi also spoke about the role of the UN in promoting Human Rights globally, highlighting the complexity of the Human Rights work that is led by UN institutions. It is easy to characterize the UN as a Human Rights enforcing body because it is often the place where Human Rights treaties are concluded, however it is important to remember that the UN itself is complicit in Human Rights violations. It often reflects geopolitical hierarchies that are completely unjust.
She has recently published a piece in the Harvard Law Review that focused on the Human Rights Council sessions that were held following the racial justice uprisings in the summer of 2020. There was a hearing at the UN Human Rights Council about systemic racial injustice and the outcome at the Human Rights Council was a disappointment for many, because even though there was a push for a commission of inquiry, some states made sure that it never became a reality, and that failure is part of the UN's legacy.
The UN Human Rights system is a complicated double edged machinery, and there can be a lot good that comes out of it. She wouldn't be doing this work if she didn't think that that was the case. However, her message to Human Rights advocates is that it is always important to engage with the ways in which the institutions that we are a part of are often central to reinforcing the kind of subordination that we are fighting against.

For those who are interested in starting a career in the field of Human Rights, she advises to start by thinking about what kind of a world they would like to live in, and at the same time get a better understanding of the world we live in today. She urges students and young professionals to seek out opportunities to engage with human rights work, while also understanding that human rights work is done in many different registers, and will not always necessarily be labeled as such. For example, social workers arguably are on the frontlines of human rights advocacy, but we don't often think of social workers as human rights advocates, even though they are doing work that is really powerful and central to promoting the human dignity of all people. Developing that open mindedness and ability to see the Human Rights aspects of different work can be fundamental in your development as a Human Rights activist, as you think of ways to make the world a better place.

This is sometimes easier said than done, because not everybody has the luxury of pursuing professions that resonate with them, and for some, pursuing human rights work is not possible because of the financial implications of doing that. But no matter what career you end up in, the personal is political, and we should always try to ensure that we are doing our work in a way that maximizes our capacity to be doing at the very least no harm, but hopefully changing things for the better.

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