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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination discusses situation in United States with non-governmental organizations

12 August 2014

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this morning held an interactive dialogue with non-governmental organizations from the United States ahead of its review of the combined seventh to ninth periodic report of that country.

Representatives of non-governmental organizations from the United States made a number of statements concerning discrimination in the following areas: work, voting, the environment, State violence, children, housing, education, implementation of the Convention, immigration, healthcare and reproductive health and criminal justice. Issues of major concern that were raised several times included the Stand Your Ground laws in a number of States, child labour among Hispanic communities, the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison, and racial segregation in public schools.

The Committee also heard statements from impacted persons on their individual experiences, including a testimony from the parents of teenagers who were shot dead under the Stand Your Ground laws.

In a third part of the meeting, the Committee heard statements delivered by indigenous persons organizations, which raised issues including threats to Sacred Grounds, sexual violence faced by Native American women, discriminatory removal of indigenous children from their families and claims by indigenous peoples of Hawaii for independence and the right to self-determination.

The following non-governmental organizations took the floor, many of whom delivered a joint statement: US Human Rights Network, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, New Mexico Environmental Law Centre, Black Women’s Blueprint, Correctional Association of New York, National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, Puente Human Rights Movement, SisterSong Women of Colour Reproductive Justice Collective, Malcolm X Centre for Self Determination and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Impacted individuals from the following organizations took the floor to speak about their personal experiences: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Jordan Davis Foundation, Trayvon Martin Foundation, Public Interest Law and Advocacy Resource of Coastal Louisiana, Justice Now, Black Women’s Blueprint, Africatown Community Development Corp, Women’s All Points Bulletin, Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Mother Heart (Movement of Mothers and Others Standing-Up-Together), Freedom Inc, US Human Rights Network and the Puente Human Rights Movement.

The following indigenous peoples organizations took the floor: International Indian Treaty Council, Indigenous World Association, Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, National Native American Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, Lipan Apache Band of Texas and Lipan Apache Women Defense, National Indian Child Welfare Association, Hawaii Koani Foundation, Chickaloon Village and the Navajo Nation Council.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. this afternoon at the Palais Wilson to commence the review of the combined sixteenth and seventeenth periodic report of El Salvador CERD/C/SLV/16-17. The review of the United States will exceptionally take place in Room XVIII of the Palais des Nations at 3 p.m. on Wednesday 13 August, concluding at 1 p.m. on Thursday 14 August.

Thematic Statements by Non-Governmental Organizations

Workers’ Rights

A representative of the US Human Rights Network, speaking in a joint statement, raised concerns about the impact of pesticide products and other hazards in the cloth industry on workers, which were even causing deaths. Workers from minority backgrounds were subjected to discrimination and violations including wage theft, sexual violence and extremely substandard housing and camps. The network also raised concerns about child labour, saying that Hispanic children illegally worked harvesting cotton, in violation of International Labour Organization Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour. Furthermore, outreach and civil society members were prevented from accessing the workers and their camps because of police harassment. Lack of access to council and healthcare were two of the most acute problems facing migrant farm workers.

Voting Rights

A representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, speaking in a joint statement, spoke about the lack of voting rights of 4.4 million civilians who had previously been convicted of a crime, who had been temporarily incarcerated or who were on probation or parole. Currently 7.7 per cent of the adult African American population was disenfranchised on the basis of their involvement in the criminal justice system; a figure that was four times greater than the non-African American disenfranchisement rate. Hispanic men were also disproportionately affected.

Another representative of the Association said the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required places with a history of discriminatory voting rights to get advance approval from the central Government before putting restrictions and rules on voting into place, but since the decision on the Shelby County case, North Carolina had adopted a sweeping pattern of racially discriminating rules. The Committee should urge the United States to adopt a National Plan of Action to tackle the problem, he said.

Environmental Rights

A representative of the New Mexico Environmental Law Centre, speaking in a joint statement, said minority and indigenous communities in the United States were disproportionately denied access to clean drinking water sources. Throughout the western United States, uranium mining, milling and the nuclear fuel chain had polluted millions of gallons of water, including with radioactive waste. The industrial pollution contributed to a life expectancy that could be as much as 20 years shorter than in neighbourhoods with less industry and pollution. Federal and State environmental laws were unequally implemented and enforced and State policy had resulted in a de facto pattern of segregation where minority families lived in the most polluted and unhealthy neighbourhoods. The United States should meaningfully engage with and consult minority and indigenous communities in planning and promoting industrial projects.

State Violence

A representative of the Black Women’s Blueprint, speaking in a joint statement, spoke about security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm. The Committee had previously agreed that widespread racial disparities in the experiences of violence against women, and women of colour, constituted racial discrimination. Intimate partner murders were among the leading cause of death for African-Americans aged between 15 and 35 years old. “Stand Your Ground” laws in 23 States allowed subjective bias to skew justice processes, resulting in discriminatory application based on race and gender. The organization also raised concern about State inflicted violence through forced and coercive measures in the mental health system. The Committee should ask the United States to overhaul, if not eliminate, “Stand Your Ground” laws.

Children’s Rights

A representative of the Correctional Association of New York, speaking in a joint statement, said persistent discriminatory treatment by the United States systematically violated the human rights of children of colour, as well as their development, cultural and bodily integrity and self-determination. Children of colour were disproportionately represented in areas including foster care, and the forced over-medication of psychotropic medications. Approximately 300,000 to 500,000 Hispanic children were legally hired to work hard labour in agriculture, which compromised their health and education. Indigenous African-Americans and indigenous children were disproportionately affected by parental incarceration, and the latter were removed from their parents. On juvenile justice, the Association was concerned that age and cognitive development of children from minority backgrounds was not always taken into account.

Housing Rights

A representative of the National Centre on Homelessness and Poverty, speaking in a joint statement, said United States housing policy perpetuated racial segregation and impacted upon the rights of people of colour and their access to social resources. The economic crisis resulted in high foreclosure rates in communities of colour and increasing disparities between white families and families of colour. Access to legal counsel was an important part of the right to housing, especially for people who faced forced eviction. People of colour were disproportionately more likely to be homeless; a significant percentage were younger than 21 years of age, and vulnerable to exploitation such as trafficking. The United States was recommended to work with indigenous people to sustain multi-generational housing which was so effective in preventing homelessness. Existing vacant housing stock should be used to house the homeless, who should no longer be criminalized.

Education Rights

A representative of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, speaking in a joint statement, said United States students continued to attend schools that were deeply segregated by race and class. The number of Black and Latino students attending schools that were more than 90 per cent segregated continued to increase. For the vast majority of ethnic and racial minorities, high school graduation rates remained stuck at around 60 per cent. Black and Latino students had significantly lower college attendance than their White counterparts. African American students were three times more likely to be suspended than their classmates, according to United States Government figures. At pre-school level, Black children represented 18 per cent of the enrolment but 48 per cent of pre-school children who received an out-of-school suspension. The speaker asked how could so many pre-school children be suspended, and urged the Committee to address de facto segregation in public education which was a result of resource inequality for low-income children of colour.

Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

A representative of the US Human Rights Network, speaking in a joint statement, said the facts on the ground in the United States showed the country was failing to meet its fundamental obligations under the Convention. Twenty years after ratification the United States did not have any institutionalized mechanisms to monitor Convention compliance at the national or local levels – that had to be remedied. United States law defined discrimination more narrowly than the Convention, and the most severe impact was on the descendants of slaves, African-Americans, indigenous persons and Hispanic people.

A representative of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, speaking in a joint statement, said little had been done to publicize international human rights treaties in the United States and most local authority workers had never even heard of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Commission asked for more funding for local projects, and for the Committee to urge the State party to create an institutionalized monitoring mechanism for implementation of the Convention.

Immigration

A representative of the Puente Human Rights Movement, speaking in a joint statement, described the experiences of people who had left their homes in Latin America, undergone deadly journeys only to face discrimination and dehumanization at their destination country. Human rights violations at the United States border had increased in line with the increased militarization of the 3,000 kilometre border, which was patrolled by some 20,000 officers. The United States recently changed its rules on the use of force at the border, but there was no mechanism to monitor it. The migrant population who were incarcerated suffered inhuman and abusive conditions including overcrowding, extreme temperatures and lack of access to healthcare. Migrants were seeking a new life but in fact were migrating to a State of hate, were they were targeted because of the colour of their skin.

Healthcare and Reproductive Rights

A representative of the SisterSong Women of Colour Reproductive Justice Collective spoke about the intersection of race and gender discrimination and how people of colour lacked access to critical healthcare. The rate of preventable maternal mortality had increased by 136 per cent in the last two decades. Black women were now dying in childbirth at a rate four times that of white women, and in some places in the South of the United States the rate exceeded that of Sub-Saharan Africa. The 2010 Affordable Care Act promised to expand access and address disparities, but excluded large groups of immigrants. The speaker spoke about discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDS, and claimed that incarcerated women of colour had been subjected to involuntary sterilization and forced mental health treatment. She also said that nearly half of all prisoners with serious mental illness in the Los Angeles County Jail system were Black.

Criminal Justice

A representative of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the United States, said the impact of criminal law and policy on racial and ethnic minorities was without question one of the most critical issues faced by the United States today. The United States’ criminal justice system was in crisis. Policies had been enacted which had contributed to an incarceration rate on a scale that existed nowhere else in the world; which in turn, had resulted in a system that was racially and ethnically discriminatory – and ultimately unsustainable. Today African Americans and Latinos composed approximately 60 per cent of imprisoned individuals. African American males were six times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Hispanic White males, and Hispanic males were imprisoned at about 2.5 times the rate of non-Hispanic White males. Racial and ethnic disparities among women were less prevalent but remained prevalent. Two million children, a majority of whom were racial minorities, had at least one parent in prison. To halt the terrible trend the United States must address several issues, including profiling and prosecutorial discretion, sentencing disparities, the impact of parental incarceration on indigenous, African-American and Latino children, the treatment of persons labelled with mental illness in the criminal justice system and the criminalization of migrants.

The Malcolm X Centre for Self-Determination, speaking on behalf of several other organizations, spoke on behalf of civil rights era political prisoners, activists who were imprisoned in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as a result of an unlawful and discredited programme designed to suppress the racial justice movements of that time. The programme, known as Pro-And-Tell Co used harassment, imprisonment and death to suppress those movements. While a small number of activists had been released after years behind bars, most remained in prison where they had faced cruel and unusual punishment including decades of solitary confinement. The Committee was urged to ask the United States to implement Article 6 of the Convention and end the criminalization of those activists, and to create a Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism to end those egregious violations.

Questions by Members of the Committee

The amount of information received was amazing, and the effort of the civil society of the United States was praised for bringing so many questions and reports to the Committee. The only question, a Committee Member said, that was most shocking to him was to realize than in spite of several decades of affirmative action in the United States to improve the mixing up of colours and races in schools was that segregation was nowadays much worse than it was in the 1970s. Could the representative confirm that impression, and explain that negative phenomenon? Another Expert said some 39 million African Americans were particularly affected by structural racial discrimination in the United States, which was part of the broader heritage of slavery. He asked organizations how involved they were in the United Nations Decade of Persons of African Descent which would start in 2015 – were there global solutions to global problems?

Response by Non-Governmental Organizations

A representative of an organization which spoke about discrimination in education said it was noteworthy that 2014 was the anniversary of the most important Supreme Court decision – the Brown Decision – to end racial segregation in the United States. However, that decision did not guarantee an end to segregation in public education, which the United States Supreme Court had ruled was not a fundamental right. At the Federal Level, the United States did not hold that public education was a human right, the speaker reiterated. Political will was an essential element in addressing the problem of racial segregation in United States public schools, and was elusive at best. Civil society sought to accomplish a result by working as non-governmental organizations within the State system, pressing the Federal Government to enact a right to public education, and by using forums such as this Committee to embarrass the United States into truly recognizing the problem.

Another speaker spoke about efforts by the Federal Department of Education to address discrimination in schools, and said they had rolled out some projects, for example on ‘safe schools’ and ‘healthy students’ which could be used to address discrimination issues. The Committee should ask the State party how much funding had been put into projects that addressed racism, discrimination and xenophobia in United States public schools.

There was tremendous interest among State and Country human rights Government officials to better understand the obligations of local governments under international treaties, a speaker said. However, the agencies they worked for were those that were being cut under local and State budgets as they were not seen as critical services. The United States Government could take very low-cost or free measures to communicate to local officials their responsibility to implement this Convention.

Statements by Impacted Persons

Leon Russell, of National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, highlighted the impact of discriminatory laws in the State of Florida, which he said was an epicentre of recent efforts to curtail community registration drives. In 2008 10 per cent of African Americans and 10.4 per cent of Hispanics in Florida registered through community registration drives, whereas White people registered at lowers rates, of 5.3 per cent in 2010. White voters, relatively speaking, had lower participation rates. The authorities in Florida sought to limit community registration voting, early and in-person voting, which was part of a wide-spread problem.

Ron Davis, of the Jordan Davis Foundation, said how long could a society function where teenage children could not enjoy an evening out with their friends, at 7.30pm and five minutes from their home, without being racially profiled. Mr. Davis said his son Jordan Davis was murdered for playing his music too loud. Law enforcement officials had a shoot-first consciousness. The Committee must ask the State party to revise the Stand Your Ground laws, which violated human rights.

Sybrina Fulton, of the Trayvon Martin Foundation, said her son’s life was violently and intentionally taken away from him before he had chance to mature into an adult, in Florida in 2012. Ms. Fulton said her son Trayvon died at the age of 17 years old, at the hands of a 27 year old non-African American adult who considered Trayvon to be a threat because of the colour of his skin. Although Stand Your Ground was considered a neutral law, it was in fact discriminatory against people of colour. The Committee was asked to challenge the State Government to work with local authorities to repeal the Stand Your Ground law to make a future for people of colour.

May Nguyen, of Public Interest Law and Advocacy Resource of Coastal Louisiana, spoke about a community of Vietnamese Americans living mostly along the coast of Louisiana, which was disproportionately affected by land and water contamination. After Hurricane Katrina there was one landfill for all the toxic waste which was situated one kilometre from the community, which seeped into the community and was colloquially referred to as “cancer alley”.

Theresa Martinez, of Justice Now, spoke about abuses in the prison system, including sterilization. There had been 144 documented cases in California and many more undocumented.

Nicole Patin, of the Black Women’s Blueprint, spoke about the impact of sexual violence, including her own two experiences of being raped before she was 25 years of age. The speaker said vast numbers of African American women in the United States had been raped – between 40 and 60 per cent – and the few who did report the rape experienced the lowest conviction rates of any ethnicity. The Committee was asked to ask the Government to ensure black women who were victims of rape and sexual violence received the support and justice they deserved.

Johnetta Wilson, of Africatown Community Development Corp, spoke about the descendants of Africa Town in Alabama, who after the abolishment of the slave trade found a way to make it their home. The descendants of the slaves had the right to make Africa Town their home, but an international paper company had polluted the community, causing high levels of pollution leading to high cancer rates.

Crista Noel, of Women’s All Points Bulletin, read out the details of cases of women she knew personally who had suffered from violence and death, including fatal shootings and sexual abuse, by police authorities, some when they were walking innocently down a street or in their own homes, who had been disproportionately punished for minor misdemeanours, including incarceration.

Toussaint Losier, of Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, spoke about the consequences of the ongoing United States housing crisis, which directly contributed to the global financial crisis, and he said was a direct result of racist discrimination towards Black and Latino borrowers, who before the crisis were steered into the riskiest types of sub-prime home loans.

Cindi Fisher, of Mother Heart (Movement of Mothers and Others Standing-Up-Together), spoke about African American children forced to take psychotropic drugs, including her son as a result of developing schizophrenia at the age of 13. Rather, the United States forced him to take a psychotropic drug which was over 1000 times higher than the recommended dose which caused him massive physical and mental harm. Ms. Fisher asked the Committee to ask the United States to abolish forced mental health treatment and funnel resources into community-driven care.

M. Adams, of Freedom Inc, spoke about the racism of poverty. In her home in Wisconsin 75 per cent of black children lived in poverty compared to five per cent of white children. Black people were disproportionately obese, and suffered far higher rates of obesity, and were more likely to be evicted from their homes.

Julia Perez, of the United States Human Rights Network, spoke about hundreds of thousands of children who worked legally in hard labour in the agricultural sector in the United States, including her own experiences. Ms. Perez said she was born in the United States, but for 12 years laboured as a child because she did not have a choice – as did many more Latino children today. The United States Department of Labour should remove the exception under the Fair Labour Act and eliminate child labour in the country.

Carlos Garcia, of the Puente Human Rights Movement, said the United States was committed to removing ‘undesirable’ people, and asked the Committee to urge the United States to ensure all immigrants were given full and fair immigration proceedings and free legal counsel. The United States should demilitarize the border and end Operation Streamline, and be urged to respect the sovereignty of indigenous nations.

Statements by Representatives of Indigenous Peoples

A representative of the International Indian Treaty Council gave a brief summary of the indigenous speakers in this part of the programme. She said that the United States did not consider the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to be legally binding, and said the United States should not lower its interpretation of its obligations under the Convention to match its existing legislation. She also asked the Committee to raise to what extent the United States had complied with its recommendation on the continued United States export of banned pesticides, and their impact upon indigenous peoples.

A representative of the Indigenous World Association spoke about Mount Taylor, a sacred cultural landscape to Acoma, Laguna and other indigenous nations, which was under threat from uranium mining and may cause irreparable harm to surrounding indigenous communities. United States laws and policies on consultation had provided no substantive protection, in this or other cases. The Human Rights Council, two Special Rapporteurs, and other United Nations mechanisms had all previously made recommendations on the protection of sacred areas, and the Committee was urged to also make a recommendation.

A representative of the Dine Nation, National Native American Prisoners’ Rights Coalition spoke about racial discrimination by the United States Criminal Justice System against indigenous peoples, and raised the specific case of Leonard Peltier, an icon of repression who suffered an unjust conviction and was still incarcerated unfairly. He urged the Committee to question the United States on the disparities in justice between indigenous and other ethnicities, and to recommend the release of Mr. Peltier.

A representative of the Lipan Apache Ban of Texas and Lipan Apache Women Defence raised serious concerns about the discriminatory impacts by the United States border wall, particularly on access to ancestral Apache lands to the south and the north of the wall, and the ongoing impact on Apache individuals and collective rights. The police security state was heavily privileged to the cost of the Apache and other indigenous nations.

A representative of the National Indian Child Welfare Association spoke about continued and discriminatory removal of indigenous children from their families and communities, including through adoption processes. He also addressed the historic removal of thousands of indigenous children to boarding schools, over the last century. Today unwarranted foster care and unscrupulous adoption were the new boarding school. The association recommended a robust Federal oversight and review in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act.

A representative of the Hawaii Resistance of Federal Recognition and Sovereignty and the Effects of Occupation said the sovereign, independent state of the Hawaii kingdom was never annexed by the United States, rather in 1959 the United States deceived the United Nations into accepting Hawaii as a Federal State when in fact Hawaii was a nation under unlawful occupation. The United States was currently seeking to reduce the status of Hawaiian indigenous peoples. Hawaiians were being denied the right to self-determination and pursued independence and a peaceful resolution of their dire situation.

A representative of the Chickaloon Native Village spoke about hunting rights in Alaska, which were often allocated to big game and sports hunters not indigenous peoples who depending upon hunting for the subsistence. He also briefed on violence faced by indigenous women. The United States Government acted in a lawless way in Alaska, and the Committee was asked to put Alaska and Hawaii on the decolonization list and address their outstanding issues in its review with the State party.

A representative of Navajo Nation Council spoke about violations of the rights of the Navajo indigenous peoples because of threats to their Sacred Areas in the San Francisco Peaks, due to the continued expansion of a ski resort. The peoples culture and integrity were being discriminated against, they could no longer collect the herbs they used for traditional medicine, and more so were suffering from polluted water.

A representative of the Comanche Nation said Native American women experienced sexual assault at a higher rate than all other United States nations – 34.1 per cent, or more than one in three Native American women would be raped in their lifetime, the speaker said, something she knew from her own experience. Those women were frequently denied information and services after suffering from sexual assault, including emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape.

A representative of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe spoke about the McCleod River Watershed, which was where her peoples had lived and practised for millennia, but they were one of many unrecognized Indigenous Peoples in the United States, who were not guaranteed minimum access to their Sacred Sites or traditional food sources. They asked the United States to provide mechanisms to recognize the tribes of California and do away with the ineffective Federal recognition process of tribes.

A representative of the Western Shoshone National Council said the United States was trying to get around procedures by distributing money to the Shoshane in order to show it had purchased all rights to their ancestral land in Nevada. The United States continued to work with private companies to extract water from their lands to supply Las Vegas, without consultation with the peoples, as well as large-scale mining projects. As a result, water sources and plants were being contaminated, birds and animals were leaving the area, and the peoples were slowly dying. Soon their entire culture would be gone.

Questions by the Experts

An Expert asked for a better understanding of the Executive Orders made in 2009 by President Obama with respect to prior consultations with indigenous communities. The situation of women from minorities in prisons – particularly reports of forced sterilization during incarceration – was raised by another Expert. Did the new healthcare act passed recently in the United States benefit indigenous peoples and other minorities?

An Expert took the floor to say to all non-governmental organizations and representatives of indigenous communities present today that, in his role as the rapporteur for the report of the United States, he received all of their reports – more than 1,000 pages – they had been read and had all been taken into consideration. More so, hearing the statements today was emotional and hard-hitting, and they should be of hope that the Committee would do all it could to relay their requests and messages at the review tomorrow.

Response by Representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations

In general the Executive Orders had language which seriously limited their force, a representative explained, and a Memorandum of Agreement only focused on Sacred Sites which was only a small part of the Sacred Places and Sacred Areas that were at stake. Furthermore Executive Orders were non-enforceable. Tribes who were covered under the Indian Health Service were excluded from the new healthcare act, a speaker clarified. The Affordable Care Act unfortunately excluded undocumented immigrants from purchasing insurance, and immigrants must reside in the United States for five years before they could be eligible for MedicAid, another speaker added.
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