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SPLC delegation to advocate for civil and political rights at UN in Geneva

A fundamental tenet of human rights is that they exist for everyone.

This week will be a powerful reminder of that for me and my colleagues who are visiting Geneva as part of a Southern Poverty Law Center delegation. Our trip was sparked by the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewing the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In other words, the U.N. will determine if our government is meeting the obligations of this important binding international treaty.

As a result, the trip will also be a sad reminder of the contradictory role the U.S. has played on the international civil and political rights stage. While our nation has championed some of the most significant international human rights treaties and agreements, it has thwarted the application of such agreements on its own soil in many ways, including by failing to give its treaty obligations the force of domestic law. And our nation’s failure to create a national human rights institution to ensure the U.S. lives up to such agreements makes us a global outlier.

As a nation we often talk the talk but fail to walk the walk.

This flaw has been devastating for civil and human rights in the United States. We are submitting two reports to the U.N. – one on U.S. compliance with the treaty and a joint report on voting rights. However, we also plan to bring survivors of hate crimes and state-sponsored violence, community activists, leaders and others to Geneva to share their experiences and insight on how these failures to comply with the ICCPR have real consequences for people’s lives.

Speakers at podium
From left: LaShawn Warren, chief policy officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Allen v. Milligan plaintiff Letetia Jackson; and Moné Holder of Florida Rising participate in a panel at the United Nations in Geneva. (Credit: Ben Buckland)

Hate crimes

When I speak at an event this week examining the deadly scourge of hate crimes, I’ll be joined by Taylor Dumpson, a Black woman who was targeted by neo-Nazis, and Haifa Jabara, whose son, Khalid, was killed by a man who had harassed the Lebanese family and earlier hit Haifa with his car. Shagah Zakerion, a Khalid Jabara Foundation board member, will also join me.

Their experiences put a face on the issue, underscoring the need for action.

The FBI’s most recent hate crime report identified 10,840 hate crime incidents reported by the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies for 2021 – the most since the bureau started collecting the data. These annual reports show only a small fraction of the true scope of hate-fueled crimes (many incidents go unreported by victims and by law enforcement), but they still reflect a continuing increase.

It’s one reason the SPLC is designating October as Hate Crimes Awareness Month to highlight the issue domestically. But we recognize that hate crimes aren’t confined within our nation’s borders. A global effort is needed to hold governments accountable for combating hate crimes, which is also why this trip is so important.

Voting rights

Similarly, governments must be held accountable for failing to protect voting rights. We have seen a wave of attacks on multiracial democracy across the nation in the decade since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We’ve witnessed racial gerrymandering of voting districts, disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions and, of course, a deluge of legislation restricting access to voting, particularly for Black voters and other voters of color, voters with disabilities, and young and older voters.

Our delegation includes Letetia Jackson, a plaintiff in Merrill v. Milligan, the recent Supreme Court case that saw the high court order Alabama to redraw its congressional maps to end disenfranchisement of Black voters. Voting rights activist Moné Holder of Florida Rising Together will also join us. Her organization, as well as Alabama Forward, joined the SPLC in submitting a report on voting rights to the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

Solitary confinement

We will also focus on the human rights issue of solitary confinement. While there is growing consensus around the world that solitary confinement of incarcerated people is an inhumane and torturous practice, it is routine in our nation’s prisons, jails and detention centers. At least 122,000 people are held in solitary confinement in adult prisons and jails on any given day, according to a recent report by the watchdog group Solitary Watch and the Unlock the Box coalition.

What’s more, the use of solitary confinement is excessive and particularly brutal in the SPLC’s five-state region of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. Self-reported figures from 2019 show more than 18,000 people were being held in solitary confinement in those states, where prison conditions are often deadly. Many of our clients in prison litigation – including many with serious mental illnesses – have endured solitary confinement.

Ian Manuel, a member of our delegation, will share his experience in solitary confinement in Florida, where he was sentenced to life without parole at age 14. In his memoir, My Time Will Come, he recounted how he spent 18 years in a 7-by-10-foot windowless cell. Much of that time he was locked in his cell 24 hours a day until his release from prison in 2016.

Another member of our delegation, Terrance Winn, will recount his time at one of the nation’s most brutal prisons, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which sits on the site of a former slave plantation and is commonly known as Angola. During his 30 years there, Winn endured at least six stints in solitary confinement, including one that lasted 13 months. A fierce activist, this trip will be Winn’s second time speaking to U.N. officials in Geneva as part of an SPLC delegation.

‘An intrinsic part of human nature’

As I begin this trip, I am hopeful.

Yes, there is much work ahead. The United States has rarely, under every administration, attempted any real, intentional action to implement any of the ratified human rights treaties. Yet a White House representative told a U.N. committee that the Biden administration would consider the need for a national human rights institution to ensure the U.S. lives up to its obligations under such treaties. It’s a small opening, but one we’ve never had before.

As I gather with our delegation, and with advocates from across the United States working on many different issues, I think of how the principles of civil, political and human rights resonate with people worldwide. There is an intrinsic part of human nature that believes we’re all entitled to these basic rights. We must ensure that belief becomes a reality for everyone, especially for our communities in the Deep South.

Photo at top: An SPLC delegation will appear this week at the United Nations in Geneva, as seen in this 2019 photo. The U.N. Human Rights Committee is reviewing the United States’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (Credit: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)