Can the U.N. End Racism?


After reporting to the United Nations General Assembly earlier in the week, U.N. human rights expert Mutuma Ruteere spoke on a panel at Fordham Law School on November 3 to share insights into how the U.N. is combatting racism across the globe despite monetary and enforcement limitations. Joining Ruteere on the panel were Fordham Law Professor Tanya Hernandez, associate director and head of global and comparative law programs and initiatives for the Center on Race, Law and Justice, and Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program; Gay McDougall, the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, moderated.

Ruteere, a Kenyan native who has served almost five years as U.N. special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, spoke in advance of the 51st anniversary of the ratification of the landmark International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Today, 177 countries have voluntarily ratified the multilateral treaty, providing a global consensus on racism’s meaning and the minimum steps government must take to deal with it in a national context.

While this treaty has notably connected nations of various cultures, legal systems, and religious sects for decades, its existence is being challenged by a growing strain of extremist organizations infiltrating the public discourse in western countries, including the United States.

“We’re seeing in many countries mainstream political parties are actually embracing fringe groups,” Ruteere said, calling this trend “worrying.”

“We are now in the era of Brexit and countries opting out of regional and multilateral arrangements,” said McDougall, who sits on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a body that monitors the implementation of the international convention. She noted that coordinating and receiving cooperation from the 47 member states on the U.N. Human Rights Council is “a serious problem.”

As special rapporteur, Ruteere’s mandate calls for him to investigate issues of racial discrimination that he identifies and to engage governments on what progress they’ve made on fighting racism. This includes making recommendations to nations, such as when the United States received 343 from other U.N. members in 2015.

“States do take our recommendations very seriously,” Ruteere told the audience, but he noted that, due to the limited budget of the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights, “we don’t have a good system of following up” on the level of implementation.

Ruteere’s predecessor, Doudou Diène, made an official visit to the United States in 2008 to investigate racial discrimination complaints. Based on that visit, the U.N. requested that the U.S. perform a study on racial disparity in the imposition of the death penalty, a study that never happened. The U.N. has also recommended the U.S. pass an End Racial Profiling Act, a call that has so far gone unheeded.

“These recommendations are good as long as there is a political will to make them a reality,” said Dakwar. Otherwise, he added, the U.N. has no enforcement mechanism when it comes to racial discrimination.

Both Ruteere and McDougall have championed the use of data to measure progress made against racism. However, many countries, particularly in Europe, reject studies researching racial makeup, declaring such focus on race problematic, McDougall said.

Even among racially mixed populations, such as those in Latin American countries, resistance to considering race as a major component in the exclusion of African descendants or indigenous peoples from the social hierarchy is so culturally rooted as a denial of the existence of racism that it makes the U.N. seem irrelevant despite the advocacy of Latin American NGOs in international arenas, said Hernandez.

Latin America’s racial animus based on pigmentation is true, Hernandez noted, despite most Latin American countries being signatories on the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have taken a special interest in racism in these nations because they need the entire populace involved in the labor market to receive repayment on their loans, she explained.

“The darker you are, regardless of whether you are of indigenous or African descent, the worse off you are,” said Hernandez, author of Racial Subordination in Latin America: The Role of the State, Customary Law, and the New Civil Rights Response. “The socioeconomic connection is so strong it becomes harder to dispute that not only are these things correlated but they inform one another.”

Fordham Law Professor Robin A. Lenhardt, director of the Center on Race, Law and Justice, provided opening remarks.


Comments are closed.