There's been an important victory in the UN last week for those hoping to hold the U.S. accountable for violating international human rights law. On Friday, the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued its "Concluding Observations" on the 2007 U.S. Periodic Report to that body. As reported in recent blogs on "Race-ing Human Rights" and "UN on Katrina, Race, and Housing" more than 120 U.S.-based activists descended on Geneva for the CERD Committee's session that reviewed the U.S. report along with those of several other countries.
Well-known international NGOs issued shadow reports (such as "Race and Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice" (by the American Civil Liberties Union)) and formal letters of criticism (such as one by Human Rights Watch stating that "The United States Was Not Forthcoming and Accurate in its Presentation to CERD." Each criticized U.S. domestic law and policy on civil rights, criminal justice, and the treatment of indigenous peoples as racially and ethnically discriminatory in impact or intent. The United States, therefore was alleged to be not in compliance with its international legal obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
But it was the coalitions of grassroots organizations, academics, and smaller NGOs that caused the biggest stir. There were too many active participants in Geneva and back in the U.S. to name all of them here, but among those organizing the various coalitions and working groups were Professor Lisa Crooms of Howard University Law School and Ajamu Baraka, Director of the United States Human Rights Network. (See the USHRN website link for its shadow report, blogs on events in Geneva, and subsequent press coverage).
The U.S. administration seemed a bit nervous about growing efforts to apply international human rights legal standards to U.S. actions and sent a high-level delegation to Geneva. It also bristled at allegations with regard to the racially and ethnically discriminatory character of extraordinary renditions. (See official statement and letter to CERD Committee here.)
The CERD Concluding Observations picked up on many key concerns identified in the USHRN shadow report, reports by indigenous peoples, and by the large NGO reports. Among other things, the CERD Committee raised questions about the treatment of displaced persons after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including disproportionate effects on African-Americans, the status of the Western Shoshone, racial profiling, housing discrimination, juvenile justice, voting rights abuses, the treatment of migrant workers and their families, the U.S.-Mexico border fence and anti-immigrant vigilantism, and the need for low-income people to have access to civil counsel. Significantly, the Committee also inquired into U.S. profiling and detentions of people of South Asian or Arabic descent as part of its mandate to monitor racial discrimination. (Photo at left: Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and early advocate for a UN focus on human rights and civil rights in the United States.)
Although the statements are called "Concluding" Observations, the work of the CERD Committee, and that of the activists who are holding the U.S. government accountable, is far from over. The Committee requested updates from U.S. officials on specific issues (such as Katrina displacement) within 1 year. Activists are gearing up to make the Committee's findings more widely known.
We'll see what the U.S. presidential candidates have to say about our international and domestic legal and moral obligations to end racial discrimination, whether in intent or effect. No matter who is elected, the real work has just begun...