In the United States, a black man is killed by the police or vigilantes every 28 hours. America has a problem -- a racial discrimination problem. And it is a question not only of civil rights, but of basic human rights and the nation's failure to meet its obligations under international law.
On August 13 and 14 -- only days after the tragic fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri -- the United Nations reviewed the U.S. government's compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or CERD.
Many Americans may not have heard of CERD, which is an international human rights agreement outlining measures that nations should take to prevent, eliminate and redress racism and racial discrimination. Adopted by the UN in 1965, CERD became a part of U.S. law in 1994.
And the convention demands a much higher standard than U.S. civil rights law. CERD forbids any practices that have a disparate impact on people of color and indigenous groups, regardless of the intent. In addition, nations such as the U.S. that have signed CERD must safeguard against socioeconomic discrimination, such as promoting the right to a good education, adequate work with a decent standard of living, access to justice and voting rights.
As a panel of international human rights experts questioned U.S. government officials in Geneva, Switzerland on CERD compliance, a coalition of 80 U.S. civil and human rights advocates were there to hold their country accountable and improve its policies. Among the issues targeted were racial violence and violence against women of color, gun proliferation, racial profiling, the militarization of the Mexico border, mass incarceration, and the leadership crisis among law enforcement.
"We have a number of racial tensions right now flaring up in the United States, including Ferguson, Missouri and issues around violence and political violence directed at people of color... which really stems from a culture where we have criminalized the bodies of black and brown people," said Ejim Dike, executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network.
"While we were here this week, the tragic shooting of Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson underscored the gap between what our constitution requires and what our society currently is confronting in terms of race discrimination," said Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. Bhatnagar also took note of the gap between the United States' obligations under CERD and current practices, which is why the delegation of NGOs traveled to Geneva in the first place.
Further, many of the organizations present in Geneva called for the U.S. to create a national plan of action on the implementation of CERD, and a national human rights institution to field human rights complaints. And groups are calling for the Department of Justice to update guidance on the use of race by law enforcement, and close the loophole allowing for racial profiling in national security and immigration matters.
Immigrants' rights advocates are concerned about the criminalization of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Carlos Garcia, the director of the civil rights group Puente Arizona, there are abuses taking place at the border, including denial of full legal representation to people crossing the border. Garcia is also asking the U.S. government to end deportations, and not allow local states to pursue their own punitive immigration laws.
Another issue on the minds of human rights activists are "stand your ground" laws in Florida and other states. These laws have resulted in an increase in homicides -- particularly of black people and other people of color who were fatally shot by those who claimed they feared for their lives. Often, the perpetrators avoid prison time when invoking the law, even if they kill innocent bystanders. "Trayvon was considered a threat only because of the color of his skin," said Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin -- a black Florida teen slain by a vigilante under stand your ground -- and CEO of the Trayvon Martin Foundation.
"I wanted the committee to see I'm a direct result of gun violence in the United States, as well as stand your ground, discrimination, and racial profiling," Ms. Fulton noted regarding her testimony before the UN in Geneva. Fulton added that stand your ground -- which she urges the federal government to repeal or amend "so people of color have a future" -- is a violation of Articles 2, 5 and 6 of CERD.
Also present was Ron Davis, whose son Jordan, 17, was killed at a Jacksonville, Florida gas station because of the color of his skin and for playing loud music. Davis -- who heads the Jordan Davis Foundation -- believes stand your ground is a human rights violation because it allows people to take action against those who are unarmed and doing them no harm based on an ambiguous standard of "reasonable fear."
"I think the shooter Michael Dunn was emboldened by the fact that when he took a concealed weapons class, they told him all you have to say when you shoot somebody is five things: 'I feared for my life'," Davis added.
For decades, American civil rights advocates have connected the dots between the domestic fight for civil rights and the international struggle for human rights. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Malcolm X suggested taking the plight of African Americans to the UN. The advocates and organizations who attended the CERD review at the UN are continuing in that tradition.
Meanwhile, as the United States preaches to other nations about human rights, it needs to get its own house in order on racism.
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