A United Nations committee that is reviewing U.S. compliance with an international treaty on racial discrimination has issued findings that should be seen as a serious rebuke and wakeup call for the Biden administration.
The final report of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), issued on Aug. 30, criticized the systemic and longstanding failure of the U.S. to take compliance with the treaty seriously and to develop mechanisms to integrate its goals into domestic policy.
In its concluding observations and recommendations regarding the U.S., the committee raised significant concerns about compliance with nearly every aspect of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Especially noteworthy was CERD’s focus on issues contained in specific recommendations that the Southern Poverty Law Center submitted to the committee earlier in August. These issues included hate and extremism as well as racial disparities in voting, health care, education, the criminal legal system and immigration.
The SPLC went to Geneva, Switzerland, as part of a coalition of more than 70 advocates from U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to provide documentation to CERD of ongoing racial discrimination and disparities in the U.S. We submitted three reports in advance of the review and traveled with a delegation that included two formerly incarcerated people who shared their experiences with committee members.
We’re pleased that CERD embraced many of our policy recommendations on the issues we raised. We will now work with coalition partners to urge the Biden administration to translate those recommendations into concrete policy changes.
At the same time, it’s deeply troubling that the U.S. has not done more to implement the treaty, the oldest of nine core international human rights accords. The U.S. has ratified only three of the nine. The U.S. signed the treaty on racial discrimination in 1966 but did not ratify it until 1994.
General failure to implement the treaty
At the outset, the committee reiterated concerns it had expressed in past reviews about the continued failure of the U.S. to incorporate the treaty into domestic law and policy, specifically mentioning its notable absence from President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.
The SPLC has repeatedly raised this issue, not only in our reports to CERD but also directly to various U.S. officials.
Even though the U.S. has signed and ratified the treaty, Congress has never taken any steps to incorporate its requirements into U.S. legislation, and no administration has made an effort to do the same when developing and implementing domestic policy. This means that the treaty is in force on paper, but any instance of compliance with its requirements is merely coincidental.
The committee also regretted the continued failure of the United States to create a national human rights institution (NHRI) or any similar coordinating mechanism to monitor implementation of the treaty. Additionally, the committee lamented the continued absence of a comprehensive national action plan to combat systemic racism and structural discrimination. It urged the U.S. to proceed on both fronts.
The U.S. has long declined to establish any federal mechanism to coordinate and monitor implementation of any of its international human rights treaty obligations, claiming that agency-level oversight of related domestic laws and regulations is sufficient. That claim is clearly mistaken, given the results of CERD’s review and the failure of the federal government to even consider these treaties when fashioning domestic policy.
Notably, a White House representative who was part of the president’s Geneva delegation told the committee during the review that the administration would consider proceeding with a study of how best to create an NHRI – a welcome departure from the intentions expressed by the administration during pre-review consultations, when the same person told NGO representatives that there were no plans to pursue this.
The committee also recommended that the U.S. consult with NGOs regarding the creation and implementation of a national action plan to combat systemic racism and structural discrimination.
Hate and extremism
Unique among the nations, hate speech in the United States is broadly protected by the First Amendment.
The committee raised its perennial concerns about this and recommended action to confront the prevalence of hate speech, including by public officials and politicians, and to establish mechanisms to collect data on hate incidents (something the SPLC has supported).
The committee also raised concerns about the increased activity of white supremacists and violent extremist groups. While recognizing the important progress made by the enactment of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act (legislation that authorizes incentive grants to spark improved local and state hate crime training, prevention, best practices and data collection initiatives), the committee echoed SPLC concerns about consistent underreporting of hate crimes and recommended establishing a comprehensive data collection system that is either mandatory or that conditions federal funding on credible participation – a recommendation we had made to the committee in our submission.
The SPLC’s recommendations in this arena likely contributed to the committee’s own, unusually strong and specific proposals for action. What’s more, the committee recommended mandatory hate crime training for all law enforcement officials.
Threats to voting rights are a major source of concern for the SPLC and have been the focus of several of our submissions to international human rights bodies, including CERD.
The committee expressed concerns about the prevalence of state voter suppression laws and provided a laundry list of specific suppression measures that need attention, all of which had been addressed in our report. It recommended restoring the Voting Rights Act and taking other measures, including federal legislation, to eliminate unreasonable restrictions on the right to vote.
Echoing concerns that were also addressed in a statement by our community partner Page Dukes, a member of the SPLC delegation, the committee specifically recommended steps to ensure that people convicted of felonies have their voting rights restored upon completion of their incarceration and that the federal government review state laws that provide for the automatic disenfranchisement of those who are incarcerated.
The committee raised concerns about the continued overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the prison population and specifically about their being disproportionately held in solitary confinement for long periods of time. SPLC community partner Terrance Winn, also a member of the SPLC delegation, told the committee of being locked up in solitary confinement numerous times at Angola prison in Louisiana during his 30-year incarceration.
Further reflecting Winn’s testimony, the committee raised concerns about prison labor practices, especially the lack of adequate pay and other labor protections.
It also addressed the disproportionate impact of collateral consequences including housing, employment and access to government benefits, and expressed concerns about the prosecution of juveniles in adult courts. The committee recommended strict limitations on the use of solitary confinement in line with the U.N.’s Mandela Rules, which provide standards for the treatment of incarcerated people, and urged full compliance with the Mandela Rules on prison labor.
In alignment with our submission on racial disparities in health care, the committee expressed concerns about lack of access to adequate health care in states that did not expand Medicaid, recommending expanded coverage programs to ensure that everyone has such access.
Our submission to the committee on health care disparities also included information on racially disparate maternal and infant mortality rates and the impact that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and state abortion restrictions will have on health and health care in the Deep South states where we work. We were pleased to see that that the committee raised the same concerns and urged measures to combat the racially disproportionate impact of these issues.
On migration issues, the committee expressed concerns about mandatory detention and detention conditions, including the lack of access to counsel, violence against undocumented migrants by immigration enforcement officers and disparate treatment of Black and Brown migrants.
It recommended ending mandatory detention and criminal prosecution for illegal entry and ensuring due process and access to counsel. The committee also raised concerns about impunity for abuses against migrants by U.S. immigration enforcement officers and recommended that the U.S. undertake measures to prevent and to properly investigate and provide accountability for improper uses of force.
As reflected in the SPLC’s submission, the committee stated concerns about state-level measures to prohibit school instruction about race, discrimination, privilege and oppression, and about book banning and intimidation of teachers and school administrators. It recommended that the U.S. take all measures necessary to ensure that human rights education, including race discrimination and the history of slavery and colonialism, is part of all school curricula, and to afford adequate protections for educators from harassment, intimidation and violence.
In addition, the committee echoed the concerns raised in our recommendations about education funding disparities and private school voucher programs that are exacerbating racial segregation in schools around the country.
It was also concerned about racially disproportionate school discipline and policing.
The committee recommended development of a comprehensive national plan on socioeconomic and racial school segregation, along with measures to pressure states to address funding disparities and to combat school discipline and juvenile justice disparities.
What comes next
Following the review, the committee recommended that the U.S. continue, and increase, its consultations with civil society organizations such as the SPLC and other human rights-oriented NGOs.
The SPLC and other NGOs will press the administration to begin this process quickly and to ensure that it is much more substantive than it has been in the past.
As part of the review process, the committee identified some of its recommendations – involving maternal and reproductive health, the rights of Indigenous people and the rights of migrants – to be the subject of follow-up reporting by the U.S. in one year.
Given the dire threats to voting rights and the urgency of addressing them, we had hoped that voting rights would be a part of the one-year follow-up. But it’s difficult to decide which fires should be extinguished first, and these are all vitally important issues.
The next regular periodic report, which will begin the review process again, is to be submitted by Nov. 20, 2025. Until then, there is much to be done to begin the long overdue process of meaningful implementation of the treaty.
Picture at top: Despite signing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1966, the U.S. has failed to incorporate the treaty's requirements into domestic policy, according to a U.N. committee's new report. (Credit: iStock/Nobilior and Arqam Nasir)