Last week, the Center for Constitutional Rights brought a delegation of Black elders and community leaders from Louisiana to Europe to engage the United Nations system on key human rights concerns facing their communities. Before UNESCO, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), UN Independent Experts, and country missions, advocates from three grassroots organizations – Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish, the Descendants Project, Inclusive Louisiana – detailed their long-standing efforts to protect the health and heritage of Black communities from the ravages of environmental racism.
The delegation began their international advocacy efforts in Paris before representatives from the Routes of Enslaved Peoples Project at UNESCO, where they discussed local efforts to protect the burial grounds of enslaved people and invited the project’s leaders to visit their communities as part of their mission to preserve the cultural heritage of people of African descent worldwide.
The delegates next traveled to Geneva and addressed the CERD Committee prior to its review of the United States’ compliance with the CERD convention. Our partners transfixed the committee with testimony about their years of anger and frustration at the complete failure of local, state, and federal government to protect their historic Black communities from the many harms of toxic industry, including the profound disregard for the burial grounds of their ancestors.
“In 2016, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency came to our community and told us what the DuPont chemical company was doing to our people, which explained why my wife had cancer, why my mother died of cancer, why my brother died of cancer…,” said Robert Taylor of Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish. “The plant was dumped right in the middle of our community.”
“We the people need and want you, the United Nations, right here and now, to call for a moratorium because the multiple pollutants that attack our bodies affect us mentally, emotionally and psychologically,” said Gail LeBoeuf, co-founder and co-director of Inclusive Louisiana.
Jo Banner of the Descendants Project shared how, beyond the danger to their physical health, “many hallowed burial sites have been destroyed or are at threat of being destroyed by the construction of toxic plants, grain terminals, and the petrochemical industry.” She further educated the committee on the importance of Black-owned land for the descendants of enslaved people and its erasure by corrupt deals between companies, descendants of white slaveholders who own the land, and local government.
Putting all of these facts into a human rights law context, our Senior Staff Attorney Pam Spees was clear that while the racism in Cancer Alley clearly violates core rights in the convention, the underlying acts also constitute crimes against humanity “and in some cases, as you have heard, they are genocidal.”
Our Executive Director Vince Warren made the case for a broad reparations framework on behalf of all of the civil society groups attending the engagement in Geneva: “The U.S. must divest from policies that harm Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other racialized/marginalized communities, and invest in a flourishing future for marginalized communities by supporting community-based services, infrastructure, and efforts, such as community programs to address food insecurity, homelessness, education, and access to healthcare.”
In Geneva, the delegation also met with Independent Human Rights Experts of the UN who have spoken out against environmental racism in Cancer Alley and country missions. These included the Africa Group, which in the summer of 2020 led efforts to demand international intervention regarding systemic racism in the United States.
The delegation is part of a powerful resurgence of the U.S.-based human rights movement, which is calling international attention to violations committed by the United States and demanding a transformative agenda for accountability, reparations, and investment in oppressed communities.
Read our joint shadow report to the CERD Committee: “The Afterlife of Black Enslavement: Environmental Racism and the Desecration of Black History in Louisiana.” The Committee will release its final report and recommendations to the United States on August 30, 2022.
The Descendants Project is an emerging organization committed to the intergenerational healing and flourishing of the Black descendant community in the Louisiana river parishes. Through programming, education, advocacy, and outreach, The Descendants Project is committed to reversing the harms of slavery through healing and restorative work.
Inclusive Louisiana is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the residents of St. James Parish and neighboring parishes from environmental harm caused by industrial pollution. Inclusive Louisiana’s mission is to spread enlightenment and hope to all people, to create a fairer and more inclusive society and to protect the heavens and earth for the generations to come.
Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish is an organization dedicated to ensuring the health and safety of all citizens while working to hold government officials and industry accountable for the quality of air being polluted by chemical emissions in St. John Parish, thus ensuring the health of families for generations to come.
Jo Banner, Descendants Project
Joy Banner, Descendants Project
Barbara Washington, Inclusive Louisiana
Myrtle Felton, Inclusive Louisiana
Gail LeBoeuf, Inclusive Louisiana
Robert Taylor, Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish
Letitia Taylor Parquet, Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish
Pamela Spees, Center for Constitutional Rights
Vince Warren, Center for Constitutional Rights
Dominic Renfrey, Center for Constitutional Rights
maya finoh, Center for Constitutional Rights
Nadia Ben-Youssef, Center for Constitutional Rights