I am going to take a little time to explain the whole process in a nutshell.
In international law, there are 9 core United Nations international human rights treaties. There are also optional protocols to many of these treaties and here is an example.
Each of these treaties are governed by an international body of experts to ensure that signatories (countries who have signed on to these treaties) implement the treaty provisions outlined in each convention. These core human rights treaties cover several areas of concern in international law such as:
Racial discrimination - International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination;
Civil and political rights - International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
Economic , social and cultural rights - International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
Gender discrimination - Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women;
Torture and cruel, inhuman treatment - Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
Children’s rights - Convention on the Rights of the Child;
Migrant worker rights - International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families;
Enforced disappearances - International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; and
Rights of disabled people - Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
So far, the United States has signed on to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT); the Optional Protocol to the Covention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict; and the Optional Protocol to the Covention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.
You may be wondering why the U.S. has signed on to some treaties and not others. Well, the U.S. has many reasons for not belonging to certain treaties. For instance, there is the argument that we have not signed on to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) because many of our current laws regarding gender equality already mirror the provisions of CEDAW. Of course there are so many arguments for and against the ratifcation of certain treaties. Even so, there are many American activists that are working hard to encourage our government to sign on to this important treaty.
When the United States becomes a signatory to an international treaty, we are bound to implement the provisions outlined in that treaty. And guess what, that international treaty becomes apart of our U.S. law on the same level as other federal laws.
As a signatory to a treaty, the U.S. must periodically appear before the committee governing that treaty to give an update on how it is implementing those treaty provisions here at home. The United States must submit a periodic report and appear before the committee to answer questions by committee members based on its periodic report and shadow reports submitted by civil society. Shadow Reports are an important tool used by civil society to provide United Nations committees with important information regarding areas of concern.
At the end of the U.S. session, the committee will submit its findings known as its concluding observations. The U.S. is then expected to move forward in implementing the committee recommendations outlined in the concluding observations.
This brings me to the CERD Committee hearing in August 2014. The U.S. was required to submit its periodic report and appear before the CERD Committee to inform whether we have been compliant with the provisions outlined in this treaty. ICERD is specifically focused on the elimination of racial discrimination on a systemic level.
So what happened during this session?
The United States submitted its combined 7th, 8th and 9th Periodic Reports in one document to the Committee;
The United States sent a delegation to Geneva, Switzerland where the session was held;
Nearly 100 shadow reports were submitted to the CERD Committee to provide a civil society perspective of whether the United States is compliant with the provisions of ICERD.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NAACP, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Black Women's Blueprint, and the International Indian Treaty Council are just some of the organizations that submitted reports. (Here is the complete list);
U.S. citizens traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to speak of their incredible loss. Notably, the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis made a powerful impact by speaking before the Committee about the loss of their children to racial discrimination, injustice and the often painful experience of being a person of color in America;
At the end of the U.S. session the CERD Committee submitted its concluding observations report. The report acknowledged the progress the U.S. has made as well as many concerns such as issues of education, police brutality, the right to vote, racial profiling, immigration, detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and violence against women.
The U.S. is expected to seriously consider the Committee’s concluding observations and implement all recommendations.
So why is all this important? Who is going to make the U.S. implement provisions of this treaty and the Committee’s recommendations?
Well, there is no “international police” that will make the U.S. or any country implement the provisions of ICERD or any human rights treaty. When the U.S. becomes a signatory to an international treaty, the global community as well as U.S. citizens rely on the integrity, character and intent of the U.S. to fully comply with the treaty’s provisions and all recommendations and rulings provided by the treaty’s governing body. In other words the world relies on the word of the United States.
When the U.S. has not complied with the provisions of a treaty, there is the potential for the international community to shame the U.S. by highlighting our discrepencies.
This may not seem like a big deal on the surface, however in reality there is a huge cost to being shamed by the international community. Look at it this way, the United States considers itself to be a beacon of light and a strong influence on the enforcement of civil rights and human rights on the world stage. We helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. To many we are the symbol of freedom in the world.
So what does it mean when we appear before the CERD committee and nearly 100 shadow reports are submitted by civil society stating that we struggle deeply with issues of racial injustice? What does it mean when U.S. citizens appear before a United Nations Committee to tell their stories of painful loss because of racial discrimination? What does it mean when the Committee releases its final report outlining deficits in our judicial system centered around race, class and culture?
In my opinion, exposure of our deep struggles with race and class in front of the United Nations minimizes our ability to maintain a positive role in upholding civil and human rights everywhere in the world. I ask myself all the time how we can claim to be the beacon of light and symbol of freedom worldwide when our own citizens lack access to justice and equality. Everyone in America is impacted and the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri is a good example. Not only has a young African American man lost his life, the image and integrity of law enforcement has yet again been demonized and challenged.
I feel in my humble heart that America is the most beautiful country in the world. We are great and we have the most dynamic citizens. We have the strength and the power to do better. As citizens we have a powerful voice and we should use it to ensure that our system is just, fair and equitable. We should use our voice to ensure that people of color and women are treated with dignity and respect. We can do that, it is in us. We can use our voice to show the rest of the world that we are the example to follow.
This will require more soul searching and more activism by citizens and fair and equitable laws and policies.
At the end of the day, we Americans must remember two things: we can do better and the world is always watching.
Finally, the United States is scheduled to appear before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in November for its 53rd session. If you are interested in learning more, I will be writing about this session in November.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post. Please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts!