UN Racism Experts Urge Changes to Eliminate Racial Bias
March 7, 2008
The UN is telling the US that it needs to deal with an ugly aspect of its criminal justice system.
Alison Parker, deputy director of the US Program

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination harshly criticized the US record on race after considering oral and written testimony submitted by the US government. In its conclusions issued today, the committee urged the US to rectify the “stark racial disparities” in criminal justice systems throughout the country. The United States should immediately adopt the UN's recommendations to alleviate the widespread racial bias it found in the criminal justice system, Human Rights Watch said today.

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination harshly criticized the US record on race after considering oral and written testimony submitted by the US government. In its conclusions issued today, the committee urged the US to rectify the “stark racial disparities” in criminal justice systems throughout the country.

“The UN is telling the US that it needs to deal with an ugly aspect of its criminal justice system,” said Alison Parker, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “The committee outright rejected the government’s claim that more black kids get life without parole sentences because they commit more crimes.”

The UN committee condemned what it found to be racial disparities in the death penalty and in the sentencing of youth to life without parole for crimes committed when they were under 18, a practice the committee wants stopped. Further, the committee called on authorities to take steps, including a moratorium on the death penalty, to root out racial bias.

The committee also dismissed claims by the US government that it did not have the power to examine the detention of non-citizens at Guantanamo. It urged the US to guarantee “enemy combatants” judicial review of the lawfulness and conditions of their detention.

“Once again, the Bush administration has been told by a major human rights body that it is not above the law when it comes to the war on terrorism,” Parker said. “The US should reverse its decision to deny judicial review to non-citizen enemy combatant detainees.”

The committee criticized US practices in numerous other areas, including:

  • The Bush administration’s view that its human rights treaty obligations do not apply to laws or practices that are race-neutral on their face but discriminatory in effect;
  • Racial segregation in housing and in public schools;
  • Systemic inadequacies in indigent criminal defense, which have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities;
  • The disenfranchisement of millions of US citizens because they have been convicted of a felony, even though they have fully served their sentences or have been released on parole.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is the UN body of experts responsible for monitoring countries’ compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, a human rights treaty ratified by the United States in 1994. The committee’s comments and responses to state party reports are authoritative interpretations of states’ obligations under the treaty.

As is its regular practice, the committee considered US compliance with the treaty following the government’s submission of a report, due in November 2003 but finally submitted by the US in April 2007. A US delegation participated in the committee’s meeting to examine the report on February 21 and 22, 2008 in Geneva, and responded to questions.