The United States Must Comply with CERD and Work to Eliminate Systemic Racism

Last month, the U.N. committee that reviews compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) met in Geneva to examine the United States’ record of implementing this important human rights treaty.

This week, the committee released its concluding observations from the review — acknowledging some positive steps taken by the Biden administration, but largely calling on the United States to do better in its efforts to comply with CERD and eliminate racial discrimination. The committee, for example, commended President Biden for signing the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and for issuing executive orders on promoting voting access, ending the Muslim and African travel bans implemented by the Trump administration, advancing racial equity through the federal government, and more.

The bulk of the committee’s report, however, is devoted to calling out the United States’ failure to adequately address systemic racism.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights was honored to be in Geneva — represented there by former president and CEO Wade Henderson, June Zeitlin, and Nadia Aziz — to highlight the recommendations outlined in a shadow report we submitted to the committee ahead of the review. And we are pleased that many of our recommendations are included in the committee’s concluding observations — an acknowledgement that civil society plays a vital role in committee members’ understanding of ongoing issues and possible solutions.

In line with our recommendation, the committee urged the United States to “create a permanent and effective coordinating mechanism, such as a national human rights institution” to ensure implementation of CERD and compliance with its provisions. And while the committee acknowledged the Biden administration’s whole-of-government racial equity agenda and the resulting equity plans released by federal agencies, it also expressed regret that the United States had not established a national action plan to combat systemic racism and structural discrimination — as we called for in our shadow report.

The issue of reparations for the descendants of enslavement in the United States experienced a breakthrough moment at last month’s review, particularly in linking current challenges experienced by Black Americans to the issue of slavery. The committee — for the first time since U.S. ratification of CERD in 1994 — called for a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for slavery. In its concluding observations, the committee said it “is concerned that the lingering legacies of colonialism and slavery continue to fuel racism and racial discrimination in the State party undermining the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all individuals and communities in the State party.” The Leadership Conference agrees with this assessment and urged the administration in our report to establish such a commission. Importantly, as the committee stated in its observations, President Biden supports a study of reparations.

The committee also highlighted the importance of learning about this part of our nation’s history and noted its concern with efforts to prohibit public school education about racism and efforts to ban books that deal with matters of race.

On fundamental issues of voting rights and our democracy, the committee specifically called out state-level efforts to restrict the freedom to vote that disproportionately harm communities of color, in addition to Supreme Court decisions — including Shelby County v. Holder and Brnovich v. DNC — that have weakened voter protections. In accordance with our report, the committee called for a full restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the reinstatement of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, and the provision of full voting rights for residents of Washington, D.C. — recognizing, as we long have, that D.C. statehood is a matter of racial justice.

The committee also took issue with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, saying it was “deeply concerned” that the Court overturned nearly five decades of protection of access to safe and legal abortion. In response, the committee recommended that the United States “adopt all necessary measures, at the Federal and state level, to address the profound disparate impact of Dobbs v JWHO on women of racial and ethnic minorities, Indigenous women and those with low incomes, and to provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion in line with the international human rights obligations of the State party.” The committee also recommended that the United States work to mitigate risks, including criminalization, faced by people seeking an abortion and the health care providers who assist them.

On a number of other critical issues, the committee’s concluding observations recommended solutions supported in our report. For example:

  • Making the hate crime reporting to the FBI mandatory for all law enforcement agencies or conditioning the granting of federal funds to such reporting;
  • Adopting and implementing legislation that specifically prohibits law enforcement officials from engaging in racial profiling;
  • Ensuring that data collection and reporting of cases of excessive or deadly use of force by law enforcement officials to the FBI database is mandatory, public, and that it is disaggregated by age, sex, race, and ethnicity of the perpetrators and the victims;
  • Developing and adopting a comprehensive plan to address socio-economic and racial segregation in schools and communities;
  • Adopting appropriate measures to address racial discrimination in the administration of student discipline, including school-based arrests leading to referrals to the juvenile and criminal justice system;
  • Adopting all necessary measures, including legislation, to expand coverage for existing health care programs, including closing the Medicaid coverage gap, to ensure that all individuals, in particular those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities, Indigenous Peoples, and non-citizens have effective access to affordable and adequate health care services; and reducing the high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity affecting racial and ethnic minorities;
  • Strengthening the implementation of legislation to combat discrimination in housing, such as the Fair Housing Act, and ensuring the availability of affordable and adequate housing for all, including by effectively implementing the rules under the Fair Housing Act related to affirmatively furthering fair housing and protection against discriminatory effects; and
  • Discontinuing criminal prosecutions of non-citizens for irregular entry, including asylum seekers; redoubling efforts to swiftly end Title 42 and the Migrant Protection Protocols; and providing all non-citizens with sufficient procedural guarantees to consider their applications for international protection.

Importantly, “bearing in mind the indivisibility of all human rights,” the committee encouraged the United States to ratify other international human rights treaties that it has thus far failed to ratify. The Leadership Conference has long advocated for ratification of additional treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which President Carter signed in 1980, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which President Obama signed in 2009.

The committee requested, within one year, that the United States provide additional information about its implementation of the recommendations related to maternal mortality and sexual and reproductive health (as outlined in concluding observation paragraph 36); Indigenous people (paragraph 50); and migrants, refugees, asylumseekers, and stateless people (paragraph 52).

Finally, the committee recommended that the United States submit its next periodic report by November 20, 2025, and that the government continue to consult with civil society organizations, like The Leadership Conference, in preparation of its next report and in follow-up to the committee’s concluding observations. We look forward to ongoing engagement with the administration and to continuing the important work of implementing CERD and fighting to end racial discrimination in the United States.