The Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley, has assembled a delegation to attend the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in South Africa – the nation where what is perhaps the most important battle against racism in recent history, the fight against apartheid, was fought and won.
The 12-person delegation is made up, ethnically, of eight African Americans, two Native Americans, a Jewish American and an Irish American; professionally, of seven lawyers, two professors, two healthcare professionals and a student.
The conference has been long in the making – the U.N. General Assembly decided to have it in 1997. It will take place in Durban, South Africa from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7.
Ann Fagan Ginger, a lawyer and executive director of the Meiklejohn Institute, said she believes the conference is something people should know about, particularly since the U.N. treaties that will be discussed there are binding for all U.S. citizens.
“The U.S. government has actually ratified three treaties on human rights, and most people don’t even know we did it,” Ginger said. “When you ratify (a treaty), it becomes part of basic U.S. law. It applies to the city of Berkeley.”
The Meiklejohn Institute assists lawyers and activists in the usage of U.S. and U.N. law, though many organizations, even the ACLU, often fail to refer to U.N. law, Ginger said.
Carole Kennerly, a health professional and former Berkeley City Council member, considers Berkeley’s continued engagement with issues of race, like those the conference will address, of great importance.
“We have a history that is thoroughly engaged. We’re often on the cutting edge of these issues,” she said, “and it’s important that it remains that way.”
Since it is composed of U.S. citizens, the Meiklejohn delegation is concerned about one issue in particular: the United State’s compliance with the treaties it has ratified.
Each country that ratifies a U.N. treaty is required to report back to the U.N. periodically about how well it has complied. In October 1994, the United States ratified a treaty calling for the “Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” and according to Ginger, it has been late in filing its progress reports. It issued its first report last year, though the treaty mandated it be completed by 1995.
According to a U.S. State Department spokesperson, the binding date by which reporting must occur is five years after ratification, so the government was not “really late” with its report on the treaty.
“These are legally-obligating treaties,” said the spokesperson, who asked for anonymity, “and we try to take them seriously, as we should.”
But the alleged tardiness is only part of Ginger’s concern.
“The first report (to the U.N.) can be federal, but after that, they’ve got to say what’s happening at the city, county and state level,” she said. “And the U.S. hasn’t done that.”
According to Ginger, the government is obligated to publicize the content of these treaties and promote adherence to them across the country.
“It’s required, and that’s our big message,” Ginger said. “We’re going to put on a workshop in Durban emphasizing that these (treaties) apply at the city and county level.
There are some distinctions between U.S. law and U.N. law, Ginger admitted. A citizen cannot file a lawsuit based solely on treaty stipulations. But since the U.N.’s human rights treaties usually articulate more specifically what the Bill of Rights states in general, they usually find solid ground in U.S. law.
Kennerly considers the Durban conference a place where the U.S. government will be called on to fulfill its treaty commitments.
“The U.S. has to demonstrate its own willingness to conform to these international standards,” Kennerly said, “or withstand a lot of pressure from countries around the world.”
For Ginger, the conference has the potential to be something unprecedented.
“This is the first time in the history of the world that the richest and most powerful countries had to answer to an international body for racial discrimination in its country,” Ginger said. “Now, that’s pretty impressive. Nobody pays attention (to U.N. treaties), but that’s the reality.”