The United States is in the hot seat on the global stage to answer for its track record in fighting racial discrimination at home. That stage is the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a body of international human rights experts who monitor compliance with a global racial justice treaty.

The U.N. Human Rights Council marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2008. The rise of racist and antisemitic anti-democracy movements makes it imperative for the U.S. to commit to establishing an independent national human rights institution. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Associated Press/Keystone

This is the first time U.S. leaders have appeared before this body since the racial reckoning of 2020 spurred by the murder of George Floyd. In fact, it’s been nearly eight years since the United States last made a visit, after the Trump administration failed to appear at all. On Aug. 12 and 13, the U.S. government delegation defended its report to the committee and insisted that existing domestic measures were enough to address the country’s racial problems.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the state of racial justice in the United States, myself included, will not be convinced.

Amid sharp spikes in racist hate crimes targeting Black and Asian communities, the infiltration of law enforcement by white nationalists, state censorship of public school educators for purportedly teaching “critical race theory” and continued killings by police, the Biden administration was hard pressed to claim that it has achieved meaningful progress.

The rise of racist and antisemitic anti-democracy movements creates an imperative for the U.S. to step up to its international obligations and present a bold vision for reform. Instead of expecting an A for effort just for showing up and defending the juridical status quo, the Biden administration should commit to establishing an independent national human rights institution authorized to implement an ambitious national plan for racial justice.

The United States ratified the racial justice treaty that established the U.N. committee in 1994. In two of its past three appearances before it and again last week, the committee has called on the United States to establish a U.N.-accredited national human rights institution, as 117 countries – including our neighbors to the north and south – have. Not only is the United States an outlier in its failure to establish such an institution, events since the last review in 2014 demonstrate an even more dire need for it.


An independent national human rights institution would be tasked with fulfilling our human rights obligations. It would be an independent body with the power to operate with dedication and integrity – irrespective of who controls the White House or Congress. It would be equipped with investigative authority and adequate resources to serve as an advocate for human rights nationwide. And it would be accountable to the people, especially the communities most affected by human rights violations, and charged with developing a national action plan for racial justice that includes exploring concrete proposals for reparations.

The Biden administration argued that we already have institutions that uphold human rights, citing an ostensibly independent judiciary; the Department of Justice, and state, local and Indigenous human rights commissions. Nevertheless, persistent systemic racism renders their efficacy unconvincing.

Ultimately, it is not the international community in Geneva that we are letting down, but our own people back at home. Earlier this year, President Biden insisted that “faith and morality” call us to act to address the “systemic racism that has plagued our nation for far, far too long.” While his administration has taken tentative steps in the right direction – reengagement with the U.N. being one of them – they do not meet the needs of this historic moment.

The establishment of a national human rights institution with an ambitious mandate to implement a national plan for racial justice would be something to be proud of, at home and abroad.

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