Growing up in Atlanta during the height of Jim Crow, Gay McDougall was not welcome in many public places, but she boldly confronted the prejudice and became the first black woman to integrate Agnes Scott College, a formerly all-white Presbyterian liberal arts school in Decatur, Georgia.
Those early experiences led her, after college and law school, to South Africa, where she defended thousands of anti-apartheid political prisoners before helping the country transition to a post-apartheid government. McDougall, the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice’s Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, then went on to the United Nations and other related nongovernmental organizations where she became a key human rights figure.
McDougall’s personal history and scholarly pursuits have brought her back to the U.N., which recently elected her to serve as a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a body that monitors worldwide implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The Convention is an international treaty mandating the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
“One of the issues that I will want to focus on as a member of CERD, is the dynamic between discrimination, poverty, and inequality,” McDougall says. “I have spent the last two years as a scholar at Fordham Law School following the negotiations over the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. My focus has been particularly on the ways to guarantee that those efforts have positive impact on the lives of those groups who have faced endemic discrimination for generations.”
The Committee is made up of 18 independent experts on racial discrimination from countries around the world. It meets in Geneva three times a year to review regular reports from member states on their implementation of their obligations under the U.N. anti-discrimination treaty. Although some criticize the efficacy of such committees, McDougall says that the treaty compliance review process offers a unique opportunity to consider in detail how national laws, policies, and practices align with international legal obligations and how the issue of racial discrimination manifests in different legal systems, cultural, and religious contexts.
The committee also considers individual complaints submitted by victims or organizations representing victims detailing serious or systematic civil rights violations, examines complaints of discriminatory infractions between states, and mitigates grievances from individuals who feel their rights under the convention have been breached. The findings of the Committee are made public.
“Economic exclusion is one of the most devastating consequences of this kind of discrimination, and I can see this in all regions of the globe,” she says. “Whether we are talking about the Royhingas in Myanmar or the Roma across Europe, the Indigenous Peoples, or many of the African descendent people living as part of the diaspora around the world, these are communities that have the worse access to quality education, health care, and are in the lowest paying jobs with no labor protections. They also have little or no participation in public decision making. All this guarantees that their economic isolation will be passed from generation to generation without significant change.”
In addition to her U.N. role, McDougall is the chair of the International Council of the Minority Rights Group International. She is the former executive director of the NGO Global Rights, and served as the first U.N. Independent Expert on Minority Issues from 2005–2011.