Tuesday, August 29, 2017
On August 18, the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a rare notice under its "urgent action and early warning" procedures, calling on the United States government and the nation's high level politicians to "reject and condemn" racist speech in the wake of the Charlottesville violence. As a party to the CERD treaty, the US is legally bound to comply with the treaty's terms to protect, respect and fulfill its obligations to take all appropriate means to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms.
This was a welcome intervention by the Committee, but UN officials have made many statements decrying hateful populism in the U.S. and departures from human rights, so the latest missive didn't seem likely to have a significant impact. However, what happened next was surprising.
The UN Committee's statement was not relegated to the back pages of the news. Instead, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace picked up on the Committee's condemnation in a Fox News Sunday interview, asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson whether such reactions from the international community made it harder for the State Department to promote "American values around the world."
Tillerson distanced himself from President Trump's equivocal statements on white supremacy, protesting that "I don't believe that anyone doubts the American people's values," or the values of the American government and their commitment to equality.
Wallace pressed Secretary Tillerson -- "and the president's values?"
"The president speaks for himself," Secretary Tillerson responded.
In short, the CERD Committee's invocation of its urgent action procedures reinforced universal values of anti-discrimination and equality -- and when asked to choose between those universal norms and the President's dog-whistles, the Secretary of State chose to endorse America's commitment to "equal treatment." Beyond that important development, the fact that Chris Wallace raised the issue should remind those of us working on domestic human rights implementation that maintaining a vital human rights dialogue and awareness in the U.S. can make a difference.