Back to News & Commentary

Bringing Human Rights Back Home

Lisa Graybill,
ACLU of Texas
Share This Page
February 23, 2008

After World War II, the United States was a primary architect of the international human rights framework. Sadly, the U.S. spent the next 50 years trying to exempt itself from the requirements of international human rights law. The U.S. has also attempted to prevent domestic social justice advocates from using that law to expose racial injustice and bring those issues to the attention of the world. Yesterday and today, representatives from over 125 U.S.-based social justice organizations observed a session at the United Nations where an international panel of experts closely scrutinized the U.S. human rights record regarding racial discrimination.

We heard comments from government representatives: Grace Chung Becker, the acting head of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division; Ralph Boyd, Becker’s predecessor in that position; and Lawrence Rothenberg, of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Policy. The trio described the federal government’s Hurricane Katrina response as robust and comprehensive, and denied the existence of a school-to-prison-pipeline, a correctional system that funnels young kids from the principal’s office to prison. The members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) listened to these statements with some skepticism, to say the very least.

The delegate from Greece sharply questioned the U.S. government about the disparities in the criminal justice system, and expressed disbelief in the U.S.’s insistence that there is no evidence these inequalities are related to race. He inquired about post-9/11 racial profiling and discrimination against South Asian, Arab, and Muslim immigrants, and immigrant workers in particular.

The delegate from Brazil asked about the erosion of affirmative action protections in the U.S., and wondered about the impact Proposition 209 has had on communities of color in California. He expressed great skepticism about U.S. compliance with the requirements of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to preserve and defend affirmative action.

The delegate from India noted the lack of implementation at the state and local level of nondiscrimination protections that the U.S. has a duty to institute as part of the requirements of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and connected the history of slavery, segregation, and genocide of native populations to contemporary transgressions such as housing segregation and other forms of discrimination in the U.S.

The delegate from Sweden expressed concern over the U.S.’s inaction to address the issues of unequal imposition of the death penalty on racial minorities and the historic exploitation and oppression of indigenous peoples in the U.S. He also pointed to the 300 percent increase in immigrants in detention over the past 10 years and asked the U.S. delegation to respond to its profoundly disproportionate impact on immigrant communities of color.

It was truly remarkable for our delegation to witness, for the first time in recent memory, high-ranking U.S. government officials answering very tough questions about racial discrimination in the United States and being held accountable for their answers.

Perhaps even more remarkably, the pointed and well-researched questions the Committee members posed to the U.S. delegation showed that the members had extensively reviewed the shadow reports and other materials provided by the ACLU and the many other groups from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) community. Our work made a real difference in arming the Committee with evidence to dispute the conclusions and inaccuracies in the U.S. report (PDF). The NGOS are playing a key role in holding the U.S. government accountable for discrepancies in its representations regarding race discrimination in America.

Witnessing the very lively discussion between the Committee members and the U.S. delegation renewed our commitment to take our civil liberties issues and human rights advocacy to the local, national and international levels. This kind of international forum provides an opportunity for scrutiny and oversight that has been absent at the domestic level in recent years. Our hope is that the U.S. will walk away from these meetings with a renewed commitment to human rights and a fuller understanding of the world’s concerns. The recommendations of the Committee will be invaluable to domestic advocates like the ACLU in holding the U.S. government accountable to its obligations under CERD. The U.S. delegation knows the world is watching for them to bring human rights back home.

Chandra Bhatnagar & Lisa Graybill

Learn More About the Issues on This Page