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U.N. Expert on Racism Arrives for Tour of U.S.

Laleh Ispahani,
Racial Justice Program
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May 20, 2008

Yesterday, at the invitation of the United States government, the United Nations’ foremost expert on race issues — the Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance — arrived in the U.S. The Special Rapporteur, Mr. Doudou Diène, has come here for three weeks to gather first-hand information on these issues, as they manifest themselves in the U.S. During his visit, Mr. Diène will meet with federal and local officials, lawmakers and judicial authorities, and civil society organizations in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Omaha, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mr Diène, a Senegalese lawyer, will report his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council next year.

The U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, welcomed the visit of the Rapporteur to probe racism but said the Human Rights Council should “spend its time on real problems and the problems of violations of human rights of countries that are notorious violators.” Nothing is wrong with this approach as long as the government is seriously and constructively engaging with human rights mechanisms in order to also address domestic human rights violations and bring human rights home.

The United States government was a leader in the creation of the U.N. human rights system following the Second World War. When countries banded together to demand that the War’s atrocities “never again” occur, they created a system that includes Special Rapporteurs — experts with specific mandates to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions — like Mr. Diène. More recently, however, the government has taken a back seat in this global rights system and community. For instance, though the U.S. is party to the principal U.N. treaty on the eradication of racial discrimination — the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination — a recent ACLU report to the U.N. committee monitoring compliance with that accord demonstrated the government’s near-total failure to adhere to its terms.

Mr. Diène’s visit offers the U.S. government an opportunity to rejoin this global community. With Mr. Diène — a neutral, internationally recognized expert on racism — here, the U.S. can again begin to engage in a transnational dialogue on race issues. Through meetings with both governmental and non-governmental actors throughout the U.S., Mr. Diene will be provided a comprehensive picture of the state of racial discrimination in the U.S. and be in a unique non-partisan position to offer praise and constructive criticism. The U.S. should welcome these findings as an opportunity to obtain both a sense of its standing in the world on race issues and how to better fulfill its obligations under U.N. international human rights treaties.

Mr. Diène’s visit is also opportune for another reason. A national dialogue about race in America has been kick-started by African-American Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for the presidency. This dialogue — about crumbling schools that affect the future of all our children; the lack of health care for minorities; the use of race as a proxy for criminal activity; racial bias in the application of the death penalty; violations of the rights of migrant and undocumented workers and the deaths of immigrants detained by federal authorities; and minority over-representation in the criminal justice system — is long overdue.

We will not all agree on all these issues, but we’ll make headway only if we talk. So let the conversation begin.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post included a paragraph with the list of issues Mr. Diène will address while in the U.S. That paragraph has been removed. In addition, the second paragraph has been amended to include a quote by Zalmay Khalilzad.

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