U.N. revisits U.S. policies on racial profiling

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 1 (IPS) - Millions of U.S. citizens continue to face discrimination at the hands of police and other law enforcement agencies just because they are not white, although the country's new leader in the White House is himself of African descent on his father's side.

'Racial profiling remains a widespread and pervasive problem throughout the U.S,' said Chandra Bhatnagar of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lead author of a new report sent to a U.N. rights body this week.

The report submitted to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) describes past U.S. government policies as 'a major cause of the disproportionate stopping and searching' of racial minorities by law enforcement agencies.

'Racial profiling is impacting the lives of millions of people in the African American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities,' Bhatnagar, an attorney who specialises in human rights law, added in a statement.

For example, in one federal programme called 'Operation Front Line', designed to 'detect, deter and disrupt terror operations' among immigrants during the months leading up to the presidential election in November 2004, foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries were 1,280 times more likely to be targeted than similarly situated individuals from other countries.

Not a single terrorism-related conviction resulted from the interviews conducted under the programme.

In its report to CERD, the ACLU noted that despite the change of administration in Washington, this and other types of profiling were still happening in all parts of the United States because the policies adopted by the previous administration have not changed.

Like many other U.S.-based rights advocacy groups, the ACLU holds that the U.S. is guilty of violating the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which it is a signatory.

About two years ago, a number of rights groups, including the ACLU, concerned about the growing cases of racial discrimination took their case to CERD in Geneva amid calls for scrutiny of the rights situation in the United States.

CERD, an independent panel of experts who are responsible for monitoring global compliance with the 1969 convention, examined the U.S. case, and after considering the written and oral response from the U.S., ruled that Washington was failing to meet its treaty obligations.

In explaining its findings, the 18-member CERD panel said there were 'stark racial disparities in U.S. institutions, including its criminal justice system.'

Last January, shortly before the end of the George W. Bush administration, U.S. officials submitted a report to CERD defending the policy on racial discrimination, which, critics say they found to be full of 'omissions, deficiencies and mischaracterisations'.

In a bid to prove that there was nothing wrong with the U.S. policy on racial discrimination and that the administration was in full compliance with the treaty, U.S. officials cited the Justice Department’s 'Guidelines Regarding Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agents.'

Legal experts think the Bush administration’s attempt to justify its policies was simply misleading because the document did not cover profiling based on religion or national origin. They want CERD to take a critical look at the Justice Department’s guidelines.

'It doesn’t apply to state or local law enforcement agencies, nor does it include any mechanism for enforcement or punishment for violating the recommendations,' said Bhatnagar. 'It also contains a blanket exception to the recommendations in cases of ‘national security’ and border integrity.’'

The ACLU report suggests that as a result of the Bush policies, people of colour have been disproportionately victimised through various government initiatives, including FBI surveillance and questioning, special registration, border stops, immigration enforcement, and the 'no fly lists'.

Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group, a broad coalition of a number of rights advocacy organisations, agrees with Bhatnagar.

'The overboard national security and border integrity exceptions have promoted profiling and creates justification for law enforcement agents to profile those who are or appear to be Arab, Muslim, South Asian, or Latino,' said Huang, whose group made a joint effort in reaching out to CERD.

Both Huang and Bhatnagar said they want the U.S. government to take 'urgent, direct action to rid the nation of the scourge of racial and ethnic profiling and bring this country into conformity with both the Constitution and international human rights obligations.'

Though the Obama administration seems willing to change course, it is not clear when it will take concrete steps. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that ending racial profiling was a 'priority' and that profiling is 'simply not good law enforcement'.

Bhatnagar told IPS that he was 'cautiously optimistic' about the Obama administration’s response to his and other rights groups' call for a reversal of the Bush policies on racial profiling.

The ACLU and other groups are also urging Congress to endorse the 'End Racial Profiling Act', a legislative proposal that would require authorities to avoid arrest and search activities, as well as to break down data collection by race.

The CERD members are due to meet in Geneva next month. Among other issues, the committee is expected to look into whether or not the U.S. is in compliance with the treaty.