UNITED NATIONS (FinalCall.com) – The same day President Bush decided to tell Democratic presidential nominee hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) that if he met with leaders of unfriendly nations, “It’ll give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and dignity,” a United Nations Special Rapportuer in Geneva, Switzerland told the U.S. delegation America must take immediate steps to protect the human rights of Blacks affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Special rapporteur for housing, Miloon Kothari, also said Feb. 28 the U.S. must halt ongoing evictions of Blacks from homes in New Orleans. “The authorities claim that the demolition of public housing is not intentionally discriminatory,” Mr. Kothari said, but “the lack of consultation with those affected and the disproportionate impact on poorer and predominately African American residents and former residents would result in denial of internationally recognized human rights.”
Exposing America on the world stage
Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the Atlanta-based U.S. Human Rights Network, was among witnesses to the scolding and glad to see it. His group is one of many determined to expose U.S. hypocrisy and human rights violations in the world’s greatest democracy.
The U.S. Human Rights Network led a group of some 100 people, representing American human rights watchdog organizations, that traveled to Geneva for a Feb. 21-22 session and challenged Bush administration assertions about problems with racism in the United States.
They attended a meeting of the committee that overseas the UN Convention On Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), ratified by the U.S. in 1994. CERD was adopted by the UN in 1965 and went into force in 1969. As of July 2007, 177 nations agreed to be bound by its terms. (The full text may be viewed at http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/cerd.htm.)
Every nation that signed the treaty is required to give a national report on discrimination in such areas as health care, education and prison sentencing.
Critics say the U.S. has broken a series of legal promises.
While the U.S. delegation pointed to existing laws designed to protect civil rights, the UN committee noted that the U.S. often adopts narrow legal interpretations that prevent enforcement.
The official U.S. delegation also downplayed the effects of widespread discrimination, while being questioned by the CERD committee, according to observers.
Representatives from the Departments of State, Justice, Education, Labor, the Interior and Homeland Security were part of the official delegation.
“From failing to address the chronic persistence of structural racism to even acknowledging the disparate racial impact on people of color of Hurricane Katrina, the State Department reports read like a fantasy–unfortunately a fantasy that is too often experienced as a nightmare for Americans of color,” Mr. Baraka said.
Treaty requires reporting on discrimination, racism
According to Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Constitution demands that signed treaties be honored. But since the CERD treaty was ratified U.S. reporting on compliance has been inadequate, and this year’s hearing was no exception, said ACLU officials.
“The United States can no longer deny the real problems of racial discrimination, from racial profiling to unequal access to educational opportunities, that are happening right here at home,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program.
The eyes of the world were on the United States during the hearings in Geneva, he said.
“It is time for our government to address the persistent structural racism and inequality occurring in this country and to begin to look for solutions,” Mr. Parker said.
Going to Geneva ushered in a new era of proactive work, said Mr. Baraka. “It’s going to be up to activists to translate responses into local action,” he said. The human rights advocate believes an educational process that makes local governments aware of their responsibility to help the federal government uphold international treaties is at work.
“We certainly see much more interest from U.S. citizens concerning these treaties; and certainly our big task is to raise awareness in the U.S.,” said Alison Parker, deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.
In early February, Human Rights Watch released a 48-page report on CERD, which underlined several U.S. problem areas: “In some U.S. states, African American youth are arrested for murder at least three times more than White youth; African American and Native American students in U.S. public schools receive corporal punishment at rates higher than White students; Haitian refugees seeking admission to the U.S. are, as a matter of explicit government policy, treated less favorably than are Cuban refugees; non-citizens detained by the military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are denied the right to judicial review of their detention,” it noted.
“We have a major challenge ahead of us to get people to understand how the government has violated this treaty. We do see more attorneys in the U.S. using these treaty violations in their own cases. But, we must build a grassroots movement for change,” Ms. Parker told The Final Call.
Building an American human rights movement?
The ACLU was also present in Geneva. In fact, the CERD committee questioned the U.S. delegation on several issues raised in the ACLU report, “Race & Ethnicity in America: Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice.” The ACLU report examined rights violations, including events that happened after Hurricane Katrina, escalating police brutality, racial profiling, and the “school to prison pipeline”–criminal justice system funneling of students of color out of classrooms and toward incarceration.
“We are using the CERD committee report as a wake-up call here in the states,” Jamil Dakwar, director of ACLU’s Human Rights Program, explained to The Final Call. The ACLU has been fighting the Bush administration in the courts and trying to get legislators at all levels to understand their responsibilities under the human rights convention.
The Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, a California-based think tank, had staffers attend the Geneva meeting.
The U.S. did not seek reports from every city, county and state to make its report complete and accurate as required by the treaty and as the CERD committee requested, according to Meikeljohn executive director Ann Fagan Ginger.
The U.S. report did not include statistics on current high unemployment rates affecting communities of color, did not include discussion of discrimination against Native Americans, nor did it discuss the connection in America between poverty and race, or the socio-economic marginalization of Blacks and Latinos, the group said.
“The Bush administration presented facts on the federal level explaining how much money was given to education and prisons in four states: Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico and South Carolina. And officials in those states who were contacted by local activists at our urging say they never received any phone calls of inquiry from government officials,” Ms. Ginger told The Final Call.
Activists should use the Berkeley, California City Council model, which was put in place in 1991. “Whereas, the Berkeley City Council, with a view to the creations of stability and well-being, based on respect for the principle of equal rights of people, the City of Berkeley shall promote: higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development; solutions of local, economic, social, health related problems; universal respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all,” said a city resolution.
Ms. Ginger noted that lawyers must learn about these treaties and their requirements.
State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) told The Final Call of his efforts to get similar legislation passed in New York. “While I served on the New York City Council, we made an attempt around 2003 or 2004, to get lawmakers to understand how New York City was falling short on international standards, but the speaker of the council and the mayor snowballed our attempt,” explained Sen. Perkins. “I am still trying to get my colleagues on the state level to understand why it is important that our state become proactive and not reactive.”
Sen. Perkins took part in a forum Dec. 10 to mark International Human Rights Day, which exposed NYC racial disparities, and the government’s responsibility to address them.
“It has been very challenging working with the Human Rights Coalition, which has been in the lead in NYC,” Sen. Perkins said. “Citizens as they go to the polls, need to make this human rights compliance legislation a priority as they choose their next leaders.”
According to Mr. Baraka, activists will be attending a strategy meeting in Chicago, April 17-20. “We will get a better sense of where people are in challenging the government,” Mr. Baraka said.
At Final Call press time, Mr. Baraka and other activists are in Geneva awaiting the findings of the CERD committee as it relates to the U.S. human rights report. Mr. Baraka gave no indication of what action if any would be taken in Geneva after the committee’s findings are released.