By Bill Watson
PILI Fellow, International Human Rights Clinic, University of Chicago Law School
This morning kicked off a busy session for the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination—and a busy few days for representatives of U.S. civil society seeking to inform that Committee’s review of the United States. As it opened its 85th session in Geneva, Switzerland, the Committee Chair acknowledged and welcomed the dozens of persons from the United States. Multiple committee members added their thanks for the work U.S. civil society had already done. The evidence of that work was right in front of them; at each committee member’s seat, was a stack of papers a foot high consisting of reports from U.S. N.G.O.’s.
My colleague Brian Citro and I were among those who attended the Committee’s opening session. We are in Geneva to apprise the Committee of two issues that our organization—the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School—has worked on recently. One is the discriminatory effect on Asian American women of state laws that prohibit abortions sought based on the sex of the fetus (“sex-selective abortion bans”). The other is the racial achievement gap in public education as exemplified by the mass school closings in Chicago last year. Other organizations submitted reports on many and diverse issues, such as the disproportionately high maternal mortality rate among black women and medical neglect and violence in the Los Angeles County jail system.
All of these issues implicate rights enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), of which the Committee is tasked with monitoring compliance. Unlike domestic civil rights law in the United States, the CERD treaty defines “racial discrimination” to include state activities or omissions that have a racially disparate impact; that is, activities or omissions that harm racial minorities to a greater extent than the general population. The Committee is thus interested to learn what federal, state, or local laws and policies negatively impact racial minorities.
On Tuesday, the Committee will learn much more on this front during a formal briefing with U.S. civil society. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Committee will formally review the United States’ compliance with CERD by questioning representatives from the U.S. government.
This week marks the culmination of months of hard work for U.S. civil society. As we learned this morning, the Committee is grateful for the work and will use it to good purpose in what will hopefully be a productive and encouraging week for human rights.