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Human Rights Day is a reminder that the US must live up to its promises

Human Rights Day is observed every Dec. 10 by the United Nations and its member countries – including the U.S. What’s more, the U.S. is party to three important U.N. human rights treaties – the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture.

However, if you don’t know about the many promises made in these treaties, that’s probably because little has been done about them in the three decades since their ratification. While the U.S. pressures other countries to improve human rights and monitors their performance, our Congress has never made these treaties enforceable in our courts, and our presidents haven’t required their implementation as a matter of policy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center works to hold the U.S. accountable for ignoring these obligations by bringing people whose rights are being violated to testify before U.N. officials. We traveled to Geneva in 2022 for the U.N. review of the United States’ compliance with ICERD. We were accompanied by formerly incarcerated people who testified about torturous and racially discriminatory prison practices, such as solitary confinement and forced labor, and how millions of people convicted of felonies are robbed of voting rights even after serving their time – sometimes for life. We organized testimony about those topics, juvenile detention and the school-to-prison pipeline, during the first U.S. visit by U.N. experts examining police violence and racial discrimination in law enforcement.

This fall, the SPLC returned to Geneva. The trip was sparked by a review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR. We were accompanied by six people directly impacted by this agreement. They included people combating attacks on voting rights, survivors of racially motivated hate crimes and people subjected to long-term solitary confinement that began when they were just teenagers.

Most recently, we traveled with the U.N. special rapporteur on racism during her official tour of the U.S. Working with organizations that included The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Promise of Justice Initiative, Southern Center for Human Rights and The Carter Center, we brought the testimonies of dozens of people to the special rapporteur’s stops in Atlanta, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

These voices are being heard by the U.N.

Expert panels on police violence and ICCPR and ICERD compliance have issued strong findings echoing their testimony, and made important recommendations to the U.S. for badly needed changes. We are confident the special rapporteur on racism will do the same in her upcoming report.

The next step is to press our government to take the recommendations seriously and implement them. Many more voices are needed to make that a reality. As we talk with the White House, agency officials and members of Congress about implementing these treaties and the U.N. recommendations, they need to know that the public knows, cares and is watching them.

This Human Rights Day, raise your voice in support of human rights and demand that the White House and your representatives take action to keep U.S. promises.

Image at top: Although the U.S. is party to three important U.N. human rights treaties, in the decades since their ratification it has done little to comply with them. (Credit: Alex Trott)