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Rights groups call on US to tackle systemic racism

A United Nations committee is undertaking a regular review of seven countries, including the United States, that are parties to a decades-old treaty aiming to eliminate race discrimination.

GENEVA, Switzerland (CN) — The United States and six other countries are defending their record on combating racial discrimination before a United Nations committee in Geneva this month and human rights groups are calling for major changes.  

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD, requires countries to criminalize hate speech, ban membership in racist organizations and promote understanding of all races. American activists say Washington is not doing enough to meet its obligations. 

“Decades after the U.S. committed to end racial discrimination, systemic racism continues to infect our institutions,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement Monday announcing a joint report filed with the U.N. committee.

Dakwar is one of the hundreds of activists who traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to participate in the month-long review that starts on Monday. Azerbaijan Benin, Nicaragua, Slovakia, Suriname, Zimbabwe and the U.S. are up for review this year. 

Following an uptick of anti-Semitic incidents in the late 1950s, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution condemning racial, religious and national hatred and declaring such incidents as violations of the U.N. Charter. A group of African nations pushed for the U.N. to do more, calling on the organization to create treaty obligations for countries to act against discrimination. In 1965, the U.N. ratified the CERD, creating the first U.N. human rights treaty. It took effect in 1969 and the U.S. ratified it in 1994.

All 182 member states are required to undergo a regular review of the treaty’s implementation. The convention established a review committee, based in Geneva, compromised of 18 international human rights experts elected to four-year terms, to monitor each nation. 

Human rights organizations have criticized how Washington has handled a host of issues, including incarnation, immigration, education, health and reproductive rights.

“Structural racism and xenophobia persist as powerful and pervasive forces in American society,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

The ACLU and Human Rights Watch are calling on the U.S. government to pass a House bill known as H.R. 40 and its Senate companion S 40, legislation that would establish a congressional commission for the study of reparations proposals.

“The legacy of slavery remains with us today and is compounded by ongoing racism and discrimination. The consequences for Black people in this country have been severe, continuous, and measurable,” a group of senators supporting the bill wrote In a letter to President Joe Biden in June. 

In its own report to the committee, the Southern Poverty Law Center criticized the U.S. for failing to combat systemic racism in the criminal justice system. “Unfortunately, longstanding racial disparities continue unabated,” the group wrote. 

The U.N. committee has previously criticized the Canadian government for building oil pipelines on Indigenous land, the Netherlands and Denmark for failing to protect immigrants from discrimination and Norway for allowing an anti-Semitic speech to commemorate Nazi leader Rudolph Hess. In 2003, the committee ordered Australia to change the name of the ES "Nigger" Brown rugby league grandstand, named for a white rugby player who used the offensive slur as a nickname. 

The CERD treaty also allows countries to bring legal action against other nations at the U.N.’s highest court, the International Court of Justice. Ukraine has several complaints against Russia pending. In March, the court ordered Moscow to stop the invasion while the case is underway. 

The committee will release its final report on Aug. 30. 

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