Progress along the arc of social justice

A recent UN committee session provided an opportunity for social justice advocates to help shape future policy toward ending ongoing racial discrimination and human rights violations in the United States.

While August saw dozens of large-scale “hands-up” protests across the nation regarding the interconnected issues of police brutality, militarization of local law enforcement and broader practices such as stop and frisk and the impacts of gun violence in the United States of America, more than 80 American social justice advocates were busy working with an official U.S. delegation to educate the 18-member United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on rights violations taking place in America during the committee’s 85th session in Geneva, Switzerland.

CERD sessions provide an opportunity to promote awareness about human rights violations, expand the scope of human rights protections, hold our government accountable for upholding human rights, allow for impacted individuals to share their story and counter the state’s often white-washed narrative of the American dream, and coordinate community organizations as a tool to support further advocacy and build capacity to realize equality of human rights.

At the end of the session, the CERD, led by the first indigenous chair of a UN human rights treaty body (Francisco Calli of Guatemala), provided a report detailing more than twenty areas of unacceptable racial discrimination in the United States with recommendations intended to help improve the country’s human rights record in accordance with the Global Treaty to End Racial Discrimination. The observations call for the U.S. Government to “prohibit racial discrimination in all its forms in federal and state legislation, including indirect discrimination, covering all fields of law and public life.”

The delegation, consisting of members from the U.S. State Department, Department of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Homeland Security and state and local officials including the Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama and the Attorney General of Arkansas, worked with advocates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Hawaiʻi Institute for Human Rights to present information and findings on racial discrimination and violence in the United States today. The coalition was coordinated through the U.S. Human Rights Network and was led by Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Indian tribe and the first indigenous U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.

At the start of the August session, U.S. citizens that have been directly impacted by racism and human rights violations were able to share their stories of discrimination with the CERD. These individuals, including Sybrina Fulton, mother of Treyvon Martin, and Ron Davis, father of Jordan Davis, testified about the racially discriminatory practices and policies that played direct roles in the deaths of their sons.

Throughout the session, the coalition of social justice advocates prepared short shadow reports and position papers connecting articles of the Convention on Racial Discrimination with specific racial issues taking placing in America today. They also gave short presentations directly to the CERD highlighting updates on these issues, and met with committee members throughout the week-long session in breakout meetings allowing CERD members to gain greater insight into issues and policies and better comprehend Constitutional issues and recent Supreme Court rulings in the United States.

Abuses and recommendations

The CERD report begins by noting actions the U.S. has taken based on previous CERD recommendations such as termination of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. The committee also noted adoption of specific acts such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (creates federal prohibition and simplifies procedure for prosecution), the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for wage discrimination claims and the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the disparity between charges and convictions for involvement with cocaine in various forms. The CERD also cited increased use of systemic initiatives by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission resulting in an increased numbers of lawsuits and financial settlements based on discrimination in the workplace. 

But while theses initiatives have improved U.S. performance in six of the 24 areas of unacceptable racial discrimination, there were three times as many areas of concern that have seen little improvement. These 18 areas of concern covered the applicability of CERD policy, the need for a National Human Rights Institution, racial profiling and illegal surveillance, the continued prevalence of hate speech and hate crimes, the disparate impact of environmental pollution, the right to vote, criminalization of houselessness, discrimination and segregation in housing, the right to education, the right to health and access to health care, gun violence, excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, immigration reform, violence against women, the criminal justice system, juvenile justice, Guantanamo Bay, access to legal aid, rights of indigenous peoples and the lack of a unified, national action plan to address these issues.

For each concern, the committee delved deeply into the specific violations and set recommendations to remedy them. These recommendations will serve as a road map for the government and its citizens to work together to combat racial discrimination.

The first recommendation was the creation of a permanent and effective coordinating mechanism to ensure effective implementation of CERD policy, as well as the importance of special measures to overcome racial discrimination. 

Regarding the “Disparate Impact of Environmental Pollution,” for which the Hawaiʻi Institute for Human Rights played a role in educating the CERD, the report noted, “The Committee is concerned that individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities as well as indigenous peoples continue to be disproportionately affected by the negative health impact of pollution…”  The CERD calls upon the U.S. to:

(a) Ensure that federal legislation prohibiting environmental pollution is effectively enforced at state and local levels;
(b) Undertake an independent and effective investigation into all cases of environmentally polluting activities and their impact on the rights of affected communities, bring those responsible to account, and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies;
(c) Adopt concrete measures to effectively protect the sacred sites of indigenous peoples as a result of the State party’s development or national security projects and exploitation of natural resources, and ensure that those responsible for any damages caused are held accountable; and
(d) Take appropriate measures to prevent the activities of transnational corporations registered in the State party which could have adverse effects on the enjoyment of human rights by local populations in other countries, especially by indigenous peoples and minorities.

While the next official deadline for U.S. submission to the CERD isn’t until November 2017, the committee urges the U.S. to provide information within one year regarding recommendations 17 (a) and (b), 18 and 22.  The core of these concerns focuses on excessive use of force by law enforcement with calls for effective and prompt investigations with care and compensation for affected family. The committee also calls for compliance with the 1990 Basic Principles on Use of Force. The committee also expressed concern over the militarized approach to immigration calling for a review of protection measures for migrant workers from exploitative and abusive working conditions. Finally, the committee hopes to see the closure of the Guantanamo Bay facility happen without further delay. 

The committee believes the focus of the 2017 submission should include information on concrete measures to implement the concluding recommendations in four areas:

1) Racial profiling and illegal surveillance, calling for a revising of policies and practices by federal, state and local law enforcement officials.
2) The trend of criminalization of the houseless through laws that prohibit basic activities of survival.
3) Gun-related deaths and injuries as well as proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws in violation of the right to life. 
4) The rights of indigenous peoples must be a priority related to free, prior and informed consent including protection of sacred sites as well as federal recognition.

Joshua Cooper is the Director of the Hawaiʻi Institute for Human Rights and was present at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, participating as part of the U.S. Human Rights Network and contributing to the Working Groups on Environmental Justice and Indigenous Peoples during the CERD session.