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Nicole Austin-Hillery, former executive director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch and the current president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, begins her lecture by discussing her career as a human and civil rights lawyer July 12, 2022 in the Amphitheater. JOELEEN HUBBARD/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

CHAUTAUQUA — She is a truth teller.

And when Nicole Austin-Hillery declares that she tells the truth, she is doing so from her vantage point of being a civil and human rights advocate, and lawyer.

“I truly believe that the only way we can resolve the issues that we are facing, not only in this country, but across the world right now, when it comes to the fight for civil and human rights is to start from a point of truth telling,” Autin-Hillery said.

The attorney shared her views with an Amphitheater audience Tuesday at Chautauqua Institution on the theme: “The Future of Human Rights.”

She said human rights and civil rights are inextricably linked, and there can’t be one without the other.

The United Nations, she added, defines human rights as rights that are inherent to all human beings regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to work in education and many more.

“And they (the U.N.) go on to say that everyone, everyone, no matter who you are, if you’re blue, purple, green, yellow, walk with two pink ponytails, no matter who you are, These are rights that you are entitled to without discrimination,” she said referring to the U.N.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, she noted, civil rights are the non-political rights of a citizen, especially the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th amendments to the United States Constitution and by acts of Congress. When thinking about civil rights, people often mention equitable education, fair housing, voting rights, and the right to equitable health care.

“But here’s what we need to remember: the difference between these two sets of rights is this simply, human rights are the ones acquired simply by being alive and civil rights are the rights that are obtained by being a legal member of a certain political state. But more specifically, civil rights are legal rights that protect individuals from discrimination based on race, sex, and other characteristics,” she said.

Austin-Hillery said the systems upon which the U.S. were built were inherently about race. The U.S., she noted, is in a period of rights retrenchment. During the past 60 years, there have been major victories in terms of efforts to secure civil and human rights. In 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court made segregation illegal in public schools; in 1964, the Civil Rights act was signed into law, ending lawful segregation in the U.S.; and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed voter discrimination based on race, she added.

The attorney contends that currently, U.S. citizens are witnessing an effort to roll back the successes, victories and efforts that were put into place to expand, protect, and defend civil rights.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is another example of how retrenchment is in place, she added, and while that case is about the rights of women to choose, it also is about the issue of race.

“We have had many experts tell us over the past several weeks that that decision will have a disproportionate effect on black and brown women because of the racial disparities and our healthcare systems that previously existed. And that will now be exacerbated. There’s a rolling back of those rights,” she said.

According to, Austin-Hillery is the first-ever executive director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, where her work focuses on addressing and combatting systemic racism, improving the U.S. immigration system, tackling rights problems within the domestic criminal justice system, and advocating for policies to address poverty and inequality informed by international human rights standards.

In addition to her time at Human Rights Watch, Austin-Hillery has spent her career focused on protecting, defending, and expanding rights from both the human and civil rights perspectives. She will discuss the intersection of an expansive rights approach for the Chautauqua Lecture Series. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Austin-Hillery was the first director and counsel of The Brennan Center’s Washington, D.C. office, which she opened in March 2008. At the Brennan Center, she oversaw the growth and development of the center’s advocacy and policy development work in Washington and served as its chief representative before Congress and the Executive Branch. Prior to her time at the Brennan Center, Austin-Hillery litigated at the law firm of Mehri & Skalet, PLLC as part of the firm’s civil rights employment class action practice and as the George N. Lindsay Civil Rights Law Fellow at the national office of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. where she focused on housing litigation and policy. She served as the 2018-2019 president of the Washington Bar Association, is a past president and current board member of the Washington Council of Lawyers, formerly served as an Advisory Committee Member of the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law, serves on the Board of Common Cause and is a former co-chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s Defense Function Committee.

She has also been an adjunct civil rights professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law and is a former Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow at Harvard Law School. Austin-Hillery is a graduate of the Howard University School of Law and Carnegie Mellon University.

“We all have to have the courage to do what’s right, and to say what’s right. And we have to realize that we can no longer just depend on our courts and our lawmakers to do it for us,” she said.

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