International Mechanisms

The power of human rights to influence law and policy is bolstered by the circulation of the human rights principles embedded in international mechanisms. Advocates are utilizing United Nations mechanisms to highlight instances in which the U.S. government has failed to address human rights violations and racial inequality.

Examples from the USHRF’s 2011 convening include:

Human Rights Treaties and Conventions

One of the most obvious ways governments can uphold human rights is by ratifying international human rights treaties. With ratification, the United States is required to comply with all rights protected under the treaty and must report to the UN on compliance. Of the United Nations’ ten treaties, the United States has ratified the following three:

  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

CERD is perhaps the most immediately relevant for racial justice advocates. It mandates countries to collect data on racial discrimination and to seek affirmative measures for addressing inequality. CERD provides stronger protections than U.S. laws against racial discrimination because it does not distinguish between intentionally discriminatory acts and those that have discriminatory effects. The United States is required to report on its compliance with the treaty every two years to the United Nations CERD Committee. These accountability hearings provide an opportunity for U.S. advocates to “name and shame” by submitting shadow reports shaped by their on-the-ground assessments of racial justice. This can create helpful pressure on government officials to address human rights violations by exposing injustice on a global stage.

“CERD is a platform for discussing race disparities and enjoying basic human rights…It provides us with a platform that we don’t have domestically. Why? Because while we have robust and very good civil rights laws, our laws don’t actually put an affirmative obligation on the government to address race disparities.”
—Ejim Dike, Urban Justice Center

Though they are not as binding, advocates have also benefitted from highlighting UN conventions and human rights treaties that the U.S. has signed but not ratified. Some that directly relate to racial justice work include:

  • Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Bodies and Reporting

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the principal human rights body in the United Nations. Every four years, member states come up for review under the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).


During this process, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are encouraged to submit written statements, oral interventions, and shadow reports. The U.S. underwent its first UPR process in 2010. This represented an unprecedented opportunity for advocates to hold the U.S. government accountable to international human rights standards by documenting its shortcomings to the world. Together, advocates led a national, collaborative initiative to impact the UPR through direct participation in the review process and the close monitoring of its outcomes. In addition to organizing intensive outreach and consultations with the State and Justice Departments, advocates coordinated the production and submission of 25 joint stakeholder reports to the UPR Working Group of the UNHRC, as well as an overarching 10-page summary on the broad range of human rights concerns described in the stakeholders’ reports.


The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the principal international body involved in human rights issues. Credit: UN Photo/Jess Hoffman

More than 100 domestic human rights and social justice organizations contributed documentation and recommendations to this effort, which was subsequently endorsed by more than 400 organizations and individuals. Many of those advocates then travelled to Geneva in November 2010 and March 2011 to participate directly in the UPR process via civil society consultations and hearings. Following the UNHRC’s adoption of the UPR’s Final Outcomes Report, the U.S. government announced that it had accepted many of the review’s recommendations—primarily on the basis of existing laws and commitments that advocates exposed as inadequate or unenforced in their shadow reports. With the government still falling short on some concrete human rights policy commitments and actions related to the UPR, organizations are keeping the pressure on the Obama administration by preparing advocates to participate in the upcoming CERD review process. For more information on the UPR process and results, visit the U.S. Human Rights Network website

UN Special Rapporteurs—independent issue-specific experts tasked with reporting to the HRC—can make helpful allies. In 2009, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) worked in close collaboration with several housing groups to organize a tour for the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik. During her visit, advocates highlighted the shortfalls of U.S. subsidized housing programs, the prevalence of homelessness, and the foreclosure crisis. In a report on the right to housing, Rolnik emphasized cuts in federal spending for low-income housing, the persistence of discrimination in housing, substandard conditions, and the foreclosure crisis.