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"The United States Submits Its First-ever Report to the U.N. Human Rights Council,"

by Hanna Chouest & Philip Tegeler September/October 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

When the U.S. finally agreed to join the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009, it was a significant acknowledgment that the U.S. is subject to the same treaties and conventions as the countries it routinely criticizes. One of the interesting aspects of international human rights compliance, however, is that countries are not simply compared to one another, they are compared to the aspirational goals of the treaties they have signed and ratified. Thus, even countries that claim a long history of respect for human rights can find themselves falling short.

The recent U.S. report on domestic human rights issues submitted by the State Department to the U.N. is part of the ongoing “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR) process conducted by the U.N. Human Rights Council periodically for all member countries. PRRAC, along with a wide range of NGOs (many working in coalition in the U.S. Human Rights Network), has participated in the UPR process during the past year, through consultations with the State Department and field hearings across the country.

PRRAC’s goal in this process has been to focus attention on the areas where the U.S. needs to improve on racial justice issues. In particular, in the areas of education, housing and health, the recent U.S. government report did not acknowledge serious problems already identified by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (the CERD Committee) in its comprehensive review of U.S. policy in 2008.

Education: The U.S. report highlights the government’s initiatives to assist underserved students and acknowledges the existence of an ongoing racial achievement gap in American schools. However, the report fails to address underlying issues of segregation and to demonstrate clearly how the achievement gap is being addressed. The report ignores the findings of the CERD Committee, which specifically recommended that the U.S. government:
(1) “adopt all appropriate measures . . . to reduce the persistent ‘achievement gap’ between students belonging to racial, ethnic, or national minorities and white students . . . by improving the quality of education provided to these students;” and

(2) “undertake further studies to identify the underlying causes of de facto segregation and racial inequalities in education, with a view to elaborating effective strategies aimed at promoting school de-segregation and providing equal educational opportunity in integrated settings for all students.”
Health: The U.S. UPR report correctly noted the racial disparities that pervade health outcomes in the U.S. The report highlights the successful passage and signing into law of the Affordable Care Act, which the government states will “help our nation reduce disparities and discrimination in access to care that have contributed to poor health.” While we support the stated efforts to reduce such disparities, the Affordable Care Act will not eliminate obstacles to adequate health care for minorities, as addressed in the CERD Committee’s Concluding Observations (including “lack of available health insurance, unequal distribution of health care resources, persistent racial discrimination in the provision of health care and poor quality of public health care services”). Additionally, as discussed at length in our 2008 report to the CERD Committee, “Unequal Health Outcomes in the United States,” there is a strong link between health disparities and segregation within communities—including not only lack of local resources, but also increased environmental health risks. These issues were not addressed in the government’s report.

Housing: The U.S. report acknowledges the extreme need for affordable housing in all communities and the increase in illegal practices such as predatory and discriminatory lending following the recent economic crisis. However, the report ignores persistent residential segregation and concentration of racial, ethnic and national minorities in low-income, low-opportunity neighborhoods. Significantly, these issues were the focal point of the CERD Committee’s Concluding Observations in 2008, which have not yet been responded to by the U.S. government. The CERD Committee specifically urged the U.S. to:
intensify its efforts aimed at reducing the phenomenon of residential segregation based on racial, ethnic and national origin, as well as its negative consequences for the affected individuals and groups. In particular, the Committee recommends that the State party…support the development of public housing complexes outside poor, racially segregated areas…
Conclusion: While the U.S. report touches upon many of the concerns highlighted by civil society groups during the recent UPR process, the report failed to go far enough in acknowledging the current obstacles to full international human rights compliance in the United States. Chief among these obstacles are continuing policies of racial and economic segregation built into U.S. policy and that urgently need to be dismantled. We hope that the U.S. responds to these concerns when it appears before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in November.

Resources: For copies of the U.S. Report to the Human Rights Council, as well as detailed reports submitted by PRRAC and other domestic NGOs, please visit our webpage on CERD and the UPR, at

Hanna Chouest is Law & Policy Fellow at PRRAC.
Philip Tegeler is Executive Director of PRRAC.

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