U.S. human rights advocates from the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN) and other groups arrive in Geneva this week to highlight the impact of racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) is meeting from 18 February to 7 March to review periodic reports from the United States of America (State Dept. official list of periodic reports), the Republic of Moldova, the Republic of Fiji Islands, Belgium, Dominican Republic, and Italy.
The USHRN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, indigenous peoples organizations, and other groups have submitted substantial NGO shadow reports to the CERD Committee criticizing the inadequacy of the official report. The NGOs address immigrants' rights and the rights of undocumented workers, the Katrina disaster and its continuing aftermath, disparities in the incarceration and execution of prisoners, racial disparities in education, health care, and housing, and the self-determination of indigenous peoples and nations.
Given its historical resistance to domestic application of international human rights standards, it may seem surprising that the State Department is sending an official delegation and scheduled meetings with NGOs prior to leaving for Geneva. (On the history of U.S. resistance to the use of international human rights law within its own borders, see, for example, Carol Anderson's Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 (2005) and Bringing Human Rights Home: A History of Human Rights in the United States (2007), edited by Cynthia Soohoo, Catherine Albisa, and Martha Davis).
Racial and ethnic discrimination in all its forms has long been recognized as a barrier to international peace and security. (See, for example, Paul Gordon Lauren's Power and Prejudice: The Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination (1996).) Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or color, whether against minority groups in Eastern Europe, Blacks and Asians in apartheid South Africa, or African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos/as, and Asian-Americans in the United States, is violation enough. And it presents another barrier to the full enjoyment of other civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. It also can lead to the kind of internal mass violence,refugee flows, and cross-border violence that require international legal and political responses. (Photo of UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall)
A student in my human rights seminar is writing a paper on ethnic and national origin discrimination in France. Much of the class discussion centered around the importance of internaitonal instruments in creating awareness. How can race-based or race-related concerns ever be addressed if governments and other key actors refuse to admit that they exist?
Controversies about the definition of "race" and whether it has been "transcended" in the U.S. presidential campaign continue. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the NGO reports, and the discussions in Geneva reveal that it is "racism" that must be "overcome," not "race" itself.