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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

U.S. Delegation to UN Commission on Human Rights
Geneva, Switzerland, March 24, 2000

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Item 6, Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination

It is a great honor for me to be here today and to work again with so many friends and colleagues on the profound issues of human rights and democracy that face this body. As you heard yesterday from Secretary Albright, the United States attaches great importance to the work of the Commission. We are particularly pleased with its new resolutions on promoting the right to democracy and good governance, values we believe are absolutely essential to the promotion and protection of universal human rights and to ending racial discrimination.

The United States continues to take all matters pertaining to racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia very seriously. We make no claim to have overcome such problems entirely; indee, no nation can honestly make such claims. Still, our own experience has shown that nations can make great strides over time. Mr. Chairman, the position of the United States is absolutely clear. We do not tolerate racial or ethnic discrimination at any level or in any form. The progress we have made in overcoming racial and ethnic divisions can be directly attributed to the growth of our democracy and the broad civil sector that underpins it.

The United States is looking forward to participating fully in next year's World Conference on Racism and the preparations for it. We believe that the conference can make an important contribution toward furthering international understanding on racial issues. This will be particularly true if the conference focuses on the lessons countries have learned, so that we can build forward-looking strategies to fight racism and all forms of discrimination throughout the world. Because of our experience dealing with racism, we believe we can contribute some productive ideas drawn from the lessons we have learned. We look forward to participating in the first Preparatory Conference which will take place in May after the Commission session ends and to working with our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere at a regional preparatory conference.

Our country was founded on the vision of universal human rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the conviction that "all men are created equal." And yet, the America of Thomas Jefferson's time conducted wars against Native-Americans and tolerated the practice of slavery, even in the North. To end this horrendous practice took most of the next century, and it took nearly another 100 years to build a legal base upon which African-Americans and other minorities could effectively defend their civil rights.

Progress in acknowledging that Native-Americans deserve control over their own local affairs has been slow and often painful, but it has led to significant and fundamental change. President Clinton has sought to address the needs of Native-Americans by proposing a new budget that seeks to address poverty on federal reservations.

The truth about the state of African-Americans remains a complex one. The effects of racism can still be seen in the lingering -- but diminishing -- disparities between blacks and whites in income, levels of education, and health care, and rates of incarceration in our nation's prisons. But at the same time, the progress the U.S. has made in closing these gaps can also be measured -- the rapidly increasing number of African-American professionals, business leaders, and elected political officials, and the millions whose income and education place them solidly among the middle class.

A similar process has taken place with respect to the many other minority and ethnic groups that came to the United States seeking the freedom and opportunity they could not find at home. I would be dishonest if I claimed that every newcomer to our land was met with open arms. At times, the United States legislated racism, explicitly barring Asians, Southern Europeans, and other non-white ethnic groups. As an Asian-American child of first-generation immigrants, I can testify to my own experiences confronting misunderstanding and bias.

Yet like so many before them, my parents chose to stay in the United States. They, like those before them, saw the U.S. as the land of opportunity that more than any other, respected and honored their most cherished fundamental values: human rights, respect for the freedom of others, democratic decision- making, and the rule of law. They saw the United States -- and its system of laws -- as a land of promise, where the child of first generation immigrants could grow up to become Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor -- or even Secretary of State. Despite the difficulties they and thousands like them encountered, they viewed the United States as a nation dedicated to forming a more perfect union. Such is the nature of our democracy: polity challenged by the dream of human rights for all and the equal protection under the law, a dream that infuses our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Th United States is now one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in the world. We are proud of our diversity, which has been a driving force behind our growing tolerance and helped feed our prosperity and natural dynamism.

Let me be clear: We have not yet met the challenge of creating a color-blind society. No nation is free from racial and ethnic hatred or the countless forms of prejudice that haunt the human spirit. As a nation, we still have a long way to travel. But we have learned that people of all races and ethnic origins deserve the protection on which our adherence to international human rights law depends and that such protection must rest on solid legal foundations.

The backbone of our legal protections is the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These set the standard for many of the basic freedoms on which our citizens depend -- freedom of speech, religion, assembly; the right to petition the government for redress; the right to a trial by one's peers; and due process. After our Civil War, the United States amended its Constitution to forbid all government discrimination based on race, giving all people, white or black, equal protection of the laws.

But despite the adoption of amendments in the mid-19th century to bar race-based discrimination, it took nearly 100 years before these rights were guaranteed, not only on paper, but also in practice. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that having separate school systems for African-Americans and whites was inherently unequal and hence unconstitutional. Many Americans, at least at first, favored the status quo. But a small number of courageous Americans -- Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, and John Lewis, to name just a few -- decided that the time had come to demand that all Americans enjoy equal protection under the law.

In the end, they were joined by many others. The civil rights movement succeeded because Americans from every walk of life -- farmers, students, schoolteachers, workers, ministers, and others -- came together to demand justice, to demand equal protection, and to demand that all Americans be born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Our constitutional and legal guarantees have helped shape a system that affords every American -- irrespective of race, religion, or ethnic background -- the most extensive set of protections in the world. We hope to share the successes achieved through these measures at the World Conference on Racism. For example, racial and ethnic discrimination is prohibited in housing, employment, education, voting, and access to public accommodations. U.S. laws offer victims of discrimination a number of avenues to remedy the situation, including the right to sue in State and federal courts. In some cases, the government itself is able to initiate such suits.

President Clinton has also made issues of racial diversity and equal opportunity important aspects of his Administration. In 1997 he established the President's Initiative on Race, a national education effort encouraging a country-wide dialogue on race. In 1998, he established the White House Office on the President's Initiative for One America. This calls upon community leaders to develop new approaches to address racial tensions and to expand opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities. It also coordinates the efforts of the federal government in eliminating racial discrimination. We will build on these efforts in our national preparations for the World Racism Conference.

Where Americans see the need, we continue to improve our legal protections against all forms of discrimination. For example, by executive order, President Clinton has barred discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal workplace. A series of new state and local laws have been passed in recent years to target perpetrators of hate crimes. Here, as in other areas, the work that federal, state and local governments have been doing has been supported by the work done by hundreds of private groups and NGOs.

To get some indication of the American people's interest in protecting the progress we have made, one need look no further than the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of more than 185 private groups with over 50 million members. These include organizations that focus on discrimination based on ethnicity, minority status, gender and sexual orientation, age, religion, union membership, and physical and mental disability. Such organizations include the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Asian- American Legal Fund, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Congress of American Indians, the Urban League, the Anti-Defamation League, the Arab American Anti- Discrimination Committee, the Human Rights Campaign, and many, many others.

My point is not simply that such organizations exist, but that every such group is free to organize and mobilize its people and resources to influence the political, social, and judicial levers of society. This is democracy in action. When joined with the power of government, a vibrant civil society is the best guarantor of human freedom.

In conclusion, let me re-emphasize the willingness of the United States to work with other countries -- here at the Commission, elsewhere in the UN and at the World Conference in South Africa -- to work toward eliminating racism and discrimination in all its forms and variations. As our own experience has shown, progress can be made and tolerance sustained when we work together as a transnational network of public and private actors to promote human rights.

Thank you.

[end of document]

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