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‘Grave Concern’: SPLC official takes part in UN panel on growing threats to minority rights, democracy in US

Amid growing international concern that the U.S. is failing to protect minority groups within its borders, a top official of the Southern Poverty Law Center traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, this week to meet with officials at the United Nations.

Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture for the SPLC, participated as an expert in a panel discussion – “Open Dialogue: Urgent Situations of Minorities” – at the 15th session of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues, which began yesterday and continued today.

In the video: Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture for the SPLC, delivers remarks while participating on a U.N. panel on minority rights on Dec. 2, 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland.

“We don’t often address the issues of minorities in the U.S. at a session of the United Nations,” de Varennes said. “But I am concerned that the right to choose one’s own representation, the cornerstone of democracy, is threatened in the U.S. I think the international community should get more involved and open more opportunities for specific minorities to make their case at the level of the U.N.”

The SPLC’s more than half-century track record of fighting for racial justice, civil rights and voting rights in the U.S. “is certainly what I had in mind when I invited” the organization to address the issue on the international stage, de Varennes said.

Brooks’ participation in the forum is part of an evolving strategy at the SPLC to employ the pressure of international condemnation as a powerful tool for advocacy. 

“It’s an opportunity to talk about the ongoing, systemic issues facing marginalized populations in the U.S., and to acknowledge that we face the same issues in the U.S. as these communities face globally,” Brooks said. “The U.S. is not unique in that way. It has a long way to go in terms of honoring the human rights of all its people.”

Lack of enforcement

The meetings in Geneva come 30 years after the U.N.’s adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (UNDM), part of an explosion of efforts in the 1990s to codify minority rights at the national, regional and international levels. At the time, the moves represented a dramatic break with international relations tradition, reversing the longstanding view that governments should have relatively free rein to manage ethnic diversity on their own and to determine how the rights of minorities are to be recognized and protected. At the regional level, the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 1992, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 1995.

While the category “minority rights” is now widely accepted as a legitimate component of international human rights, their application and even their definition remain deeply controversial, and attempts to bind nations to these international standards have run into a number of problems.

It has been difficult to find agreement among nations on which relevant “minorities” are to be protected or what sorts of rights to afford them. In some cases, nations have used the alleged persecution of “minorities,” such as the unproven allegations that Russians in Ukraine face discrimination, to foment violence. And while the declarations, frameworks and conventions on minority rights provide statements of principles, they lack monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. What mechanisms do exist are “grossly underfunded” and are often ignored, said Lisa Borden, SPLC senior policy counsel. In the case of the U.S., the gap between what the treaties require and what domestic law accomplishes is vast.

Perhaps most notably, the role of social media and online forums in inciting hatred toward minorities was not foreseen – and perhaps could not have been predicted – when the UNDM was adopted. Given the central role of online hate in radicalizing extremist groups and individuals today, that has to change, Borden said.

The U.N. has been looking “very specifically at how countries can find ways to work together at fighting these problems online, beyond counterterrorism, looking at how we can address hate in the online world,” Borden said.

New level of commitment

Efforts to hold the U.S. government accountable in the arena of human rights have been especially fraught.

While the U.S. is a party to the oldest and most widely ratified U.N. rights convention, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, along with 127 other countries, the American Bar Association found in 2020 that the U.S. “has consistently failed to meaningfully uphold” the convention’s mandate.

It took the U.S. nearly three decades to ratify the treaty after signing it in 1966. And since it did, in 1994, the U.S. has nullified the treaty’s impact by submitting reservations, failing to enact anti-racism legislation, preventing citizens from bringing claims under the treaty and failing to deliver timely reports of measures it has taken to address racial discrimination.

During the Trump administration, the treaty, along with the work of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a body of independent experts that monitors its implementation, was ignored entirely. The U.S. was to have submitted a report to CERD in 2018 but did not begin working on one until President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

The Biden administration has pledged a new level of commitment to CERD, and to human rights and minority rights in general.

At its United We Stand Summit in September, the Biden administration brought together leaders from government, the private sector and civil society, including the SPLC, to address efforts to combat disinformation, strengthen electoral integrity, better promote human rights and address inequality. At the summit, representatives of the SPLC advocated specifically for new mechanisms to combat online threats, hate and extremism.

Since then, SPLC leaders have met with officials at the White House, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of State to discuss human rights, Borden said.

‘All interconnected’

A civil rights lawyer in Alabama for three decades, Borden joined the SPLC last year and heads the organization’s new international advocacy initiative.

The initiative is a new direction for the SPLC. Since its founding in 1971 as a small law firm working to help implement federal civil rights legislation and constitutional guarantees, the SPLC has focused its legal work within the U.S., though Brooks and others have participated over the years in numerous international forums on hate and extremism.

As the SPLC has increasingly evolved into a powerful advocate for the human rights of all people, a global outlook is becoming part of its strategic framework, with international institutions seen as partners in spotlighting the inequities experienced by many in the Deep South and across the country.

De Varennes, the U.N.’s third special rapporteur on minority issues since the position was established more than a decade ago, met with the SPLC and other civil rights organizations to evaluate the situation of minorities in this country during a visit to the U.S. in November 2021.

With help from the SPLC, de Varennes identified ways the U.S. government could meet its international obligations related to minority rights, such as addressing hate crimes and promoting equality, anti-racism and education equity.

In the video: Terrance Winn testifies about racial discrimination in the U.S. criminal legal system before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in August 2022. Winn was part of an SPLC delegation that traveled to the U.N. office in Geneva, Switzerland, to draw international attention to racial injustices in the U.S.

In August, a delegation from the SPLC, including Borden, testified before CERD. Days later, CERD issued a report that 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.

While stressing that progress comes slowly, Borden said the new initiatives provide some measure of hope.

“A lot of things that we work on, like extremism, cannot just have a domestic solution,” Borden said. “Extremism is a global issue. It’s all interconnected. And on that issue it’s important for us to be engaging with people around the world, because we can’t solve it by ourselves, and neither can they.”

Picture at top: Lecia Brooks, chief of staff and culture for the Southern Poverty Law Center, participated in the 15th session of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues in Geneva, Switzerland. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the ongoing, systemic issues facing marginalized populations in the U.S., and to acknowledge that we face the same issues in the U.S. as these communities face globally,” Brooks says. (Photo Credit: Thomas Koehler/AP Images)