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Dispatches: US Discrimination Under International Spotlight
August 14, 2014

A delegation of US officials  has been in Geneva this week defending the US record on combating racial discrimination before a United Nations expert committee.

The two-day review, meant to assess how well the US is meeting its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, occurred under somber circumstances. Early in this morning’s presentation, Mark Kappelhoff from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division offered condolences to the family of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager whose killing by police in Ferguson, Missouri, touched off days of civil unrest featuring heavy-handed police tactics.

Various members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination went out of their way to recognize the size and diversity of the US delegation, headed by the US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Keith Harper, the first member of a federally recognized Indian tribe to serve as a US ambassador.

Yet they didn't hold back on difficult questions for the US delegation;  the US did not always do a good job at addressing them. For example, Vice-Chair Noureddine Amir, from Algeria, asked one that goes to the heart of US obligations under the treaty: why does the US require proof of intentional discrimination in the criminal justice arena, when the convention itself bans any laws or policies that have the “purpose or effect” of perpetuating discrimination? The US delegation skirted the issue in its responses today.

Similarly, in response to questions about workplace safety, the US delegation stated that federal labor laws are “enforced equally regardless of race.” As Human Rights Watch documented in our submission to the committee, Latino children working on farms bear the brunt of the gaps in federal labor laws, which allow 16-year-olds on farms to engage in tasks deemed “particularly hazardous.” In 2012, two out of three children under the age of 18 who died from occupational injuries were agricultural workers, and most hired agricultural workers in the US are of Latin American origin.

With the official review complete, the committee will issue its concluding observations later in the month, setting out steps the US should take to improve its record in implementing the treaty. In light of the committee’s statements, we can expect the recommendations to be strong.

However, the ultimate success of this review will turn on whether the US embraces the observations or, as it has in the past, shelves them until the next review.