In 1994, the United States signed a United Nations treaty — the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination — that was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994, to little or no fanfare. As the treaty’s name states, it is intended to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination worldwide.
An international body convenes every few years in order to monitor the progress of each nation toward implementing the treaty and eliminating racism of all forms inside its borders. The next such meeting is scheduled for August of this year in Geneva. Minnesota will be represented.
The official United States delegation to the meeting will consist of representatives from the U.S. State Department and the Department of Justice. Also in attendance will be long-time Minneapolis human rights attorney Peter Brown as part of an unofficial group of grassroots organizations from across the country calling themselves the U.S. Human Rights Network.
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Of the Network, Brown explained that “This presence is basically people from a civil society from various parts of the United States. We anticipate 50 to 60 people in the group that is being organized to be the presence of grassroots America, to make sure that the position and picture painted by the State Department in its report to the United Nations does not go unchallenged, and that in fact, a fuller picture of what is happening on the ground in the United States will be presented to the committee.
“And [we will be there to] provide the reviewing committee adequate, in-the-record information to allow them to make some findings and concluding observations and recommendations that then can be useful here, in the local struggles for social justice and racial justice.” The group, Brown said, even though it’s not any part of the official U.S. delegation, will be allowed to make both oral and written presentations (what are called “shadow reports”) to the UN reviewing committee.
Also involved in the process, said Brown, is Dr. Rose Brewer of the University of Minnesota and Mel Reeves, advocate and MSR columnist. Brown stated that although the United States has been found to not be in compliance with the treaty previously, there have been no sanctions.
“The United States has been found to not be in compliance with the treaty, with respect to several issues,” he said. “For instance, after the committee reviewed the United States in 2008, they issued concluding observations in which they identified 14 or so areas of, basically, noncompliance with the treaty.
“This isn’t a process that can wind up with a fine or punitive damages. It’s not a court process; it is a political process. It is the United States basically coming before the world, putting the best face it can on whether, in fact, it has met its obligations that it freely undertook when it ratified this treaty.”
The treaty, Brown said, “adopts a much broader definition and understanding of discrimination” than do many member nations, including the United States. The treaty includes “all those impacts intended or unintended: impacts that occur through laws, various kinds of mechanisms that are adopted through regulation, through agency practice and so forth.
“If any of those laws or internal practices has the result of discriminating or basically putting at risk or prejudicing, negatively impacting minority populations,” Brown continues, “those things are considered discrimination under this particular treaty that the United States has ratified.”
But if the United States is not in compliance with the treaty and there are no repercussions for violating it, what is the value or purpose of attending and presenting a fuller picture of discrimination in the States than the government officials might provide? “I think that the value of a record,” Brown explained, “is in its use; the value of a treaty is in its use. I would say that the treaty has not been used adequately, either at the federal, state, local, or for that matter, grassroots level.
“The fact is that, with respect to most changes, it really depends on what kinds of pressures are brought to bear, said Brown. “And if the United States can go over — as it likes to do — silently, to these kinds of sessions with the reviewing committee and tell its side, unresponded to, then there are no ripples on the status quo. What the committee is very open to, however, is in fact the participation of civil society to tell the other side of the story…”
Brown elaborated at length about the treaty’s importance to Minnesota and Minnesotans: “People should know that the efforts for racial equity and health equity that are going on in Minneapolis and Minnesota at the present moment are exactly the kinds of activities that the treaty encourages, backs up, and reinforces, through very clear obligations that it imposes upon government to in fact eliminate the disparities that we have throughout Minnesota.
“The fact that it has been basically hidden from the American people that the United States has obligated itself to take special corrective measures to eliminate, in essence, the disparities that exist in our country — it’s time to blow the cover off that silence and make it very clear. And that’s what the effort is about. What we have in this treaty is an opportunity to shine an international spotlight on the gap here in Minnesota between the articulated and identifiable need to eliminate the disparities, and the lack of public policy, as exemplified in state statutes and in local ordinances to enact that.
“What’s exciting about this particular time is that there are movements both at the state and local levels powered by the community of people with community concerns to push decision makers at both the state and local levels to, in fact, bring about legislative change.”
The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination may be viewed at www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CERD.aspx.
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