U.S. Human Rights Activists Using International Law to Remedy Domestic Human Rights Violations, Says Huang

October 30, 2007

Margaret Huang, program director of the U.S. Racial Discrimination Program at Global Rights, discussed the vital role of human rights activists in pressuring the United States to fill the gap between domestic human rights and the standards set in international human rights treaties that the government has ratified at a Law School talk Oct. 22.

HuangHuang focused on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which is a United Nations treaty ratified by the United States in 1994. CERD requires that all state signatories report on and remedy racial discrimination in their respective territories. Each country that has ratified the treaty must submit a report every few years to the United Nations' CERD Committee dictating the country's status of what laws and programs were made to end racial discrimination and to educate the public about it. The Committee hears complaints and reviews compliance with the treaty and then makes recommendations on what should be done to further realize the goals of CERD.

"Another key thing [the Committee] asks for in the report is that they want governments to actually acknowledge where they need to do more work,"Huang said. "Unfortunately, if you do a not-so-quick read of the U.S. report, it manages to talk very little about problems in the United States. There is no mention at all of violence against women, no mention at all of police brutality and other problems by law enforcement, no mention of the school-to-prison pipeline problem, and no mention of a lot of the issues around Katrina including the treatment of prisoners during Katrina."

To make up for the shortcomings of the U.S. CERD report, NGOs and other human rights activists have stepped in to submit additional reports that highlight the current problems with racial discrimination in the United States. These reports are called "shadow reports" and give a more realistic assessment of how CERD is and isn't being enforced. Huang said that shadow reports allow the Committee to make adequate recommendations as to what areas, like police brutality, need to be worked on for the United States to fulfill its CERD treaty obligations to end racial discrimination.

After the Committee makes the recommendations, NGOs and activists must then push for policy reform in the U.S, Huang explained. But, there are still considerable obstacles to implementing the treaty.

"How do we get the U.S. government to acknowledge that international human rights treaty law is applicable and that they have obligations that they should be looking at across the board in all policies and laws?" Huang asked. This accountability could be achieved by engaging Congress more in the CERD review process because "most members in Congress have no idea that this process is going on. There is no check when the legislature doesn't even know that a report was submitted. This is why it is so important for civil society to be active," she answered. Recently, human rights advocates have successfully scheduled CERD oversight hearings in Congress in January to move forward with the full implementation of the treaty.

"Domestic laws and institutions are failing the [human rights] movement. International human rights laws are a new framework for moving the struggle forward," said Huang.

The event was sponsored by the Human Rights Program.

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