Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights
and Labor and Bill Lann Lee
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights
On-the-Record Briefing on the Release of the Initial Report
of the United States of America to the United Nations Committee
on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Washington, DC, September 21, 2000
MR. REEKER: Good afternoon. Welcome back. I hope this has given your colleagues enough of a delay that we can begin our second advertised briefing of the day. And as you know, in 1994 the U.S. Senate ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention entered into force in the United States on November 20th, 1994.
Today, the Department of State is transmitting to the United Nations in Geneva the initial report of the United States of America to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. And we are very pleased to have with us our Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Harold Hongju Koh, as well as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Bill Lann Lee, to brief you today.
Assistant Secretary Koh has some brief remarks, and then we will take your questions. Over to you, Harold.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Thanks, Phil. On behalf of Secretary Albright, I am pleased to introduce the initial report prepared by the U.S. on its compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. This report was submitted today in Geneva to the Convention's 18-member committee of experts, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
And let me thank my friend and colleague, Bill Lann Lee, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights for joining me to help answer your questions today. As Phil said, the U.S. played a leading role in developing and drafting the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, signing it in 1992. In October 1994, the U.S. ratified the Convention, which entered into force for the United States on November 20, 1994.
Under the Convention's terms, state parties are required to report to the treaty's committee of experts regarding their efforts to comply with their obligations under the Convention. The report, written to UN specifications and current through August 2000, was prepared by the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, with extensive input from the White House, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other executive branch departments and agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations and concerned individuals.
In addition to my colleagues at the Justice Department and other federal agencies, let me give special thanks to Assistant Legal Advisor Andre Surena and Chris Camponovo of the Legal Advisor's Office of Human Rights and Refugees, and the staff of my own bureau for their outstanding efforts to make this report possible. This report represents our government's unqualified commitment to fulfilling its obligations under the Race Discrimination Convention. Our country was founded to promote the vision of universal human rights stated in the Declaration of Independence and was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and women, too.
But the road from vision to implementation has been long and difficult. The United States of the 18th and 19th centuries conducted brutal wars against Native Americans, applied discriminatory immigration practices against non-Europeans, and tolerated the horrendous practice of slavery. Ending such practices dominated much of the first 100 years of our history, and addressing the residue of racial intolerance consumed much of the next 100 years.
During World War II, as you know, thousands of ethnically Japanese U.S. citizens were relocated to internment camps throughout the United States. And even since the Supreme Court's landmark decision in 1954, in Brown v. the Board of Education, the legislative and judicial struggle against racial discrimination has been painful and challenging.
What progress and success we've had in overcoming racism have been the product of the faith, courage, and blood of those who challenged our country to live up to its promise. From Fredrick Douglass to Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks to Thurgood Marshall to Lyndon Johnson, millions of Americans have marched, demonstrated, litigated and legislated to demand that all Americans enjoy equal protection under the law.
As our report chronicles, the American struggle to secure racial equality remains incomplete. The residual effects of slavery and institutionalized racism can still be seen in lingering 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, our nation's progress in closing these gaps can also be measured, particularly in the rapidly increasing number of African American professionals, business leaders and elected political officials, and in growing income and education levels for millions.
Much the same can be said for the many other minority and ethnic groups that came to the United States seeking opportunities they could not find at home. The United States stands as one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in the world. Our diversity drives our growing tolerance, our prosperity and our national dynamism. The United States remains a land of promise where children of immigrants can aspire not just to be Secretary of State, but also Assistant Attorney General and Assistant Secretary of State.
The report we submit today demonstrates democracy in action, how 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 legal protections in the world. Racial and ethnic discrimination are prohibited in housing, employment, education, voting, access to public accommodations, housing and mortgage credits, the military, and programs receiving federal financial assistance. President Clinton has made issues of racial diversity and equal opportunity core elements of his Administration's agenda. 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, which calls on community leaders to develop new approaches to address racial tensions and to expand opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities. His initiative also coordinates the efforts of the federal government in eliminating racial discrimination. In addition, 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 the federal, state and local governments have been doing have been supported by the work done by hundreds of private groups and NGOs.
The report that you have before you today recounts these efforts, even as it reflects how much we still must do. It identifies remaining obstacles, including the persistence of attitudes, policies and practices reflecting a legacy of segregation and discrimination; inadequate enforcement of existing law; economic disparities, including lack of equal access to education, opportunity and technology; discrimination in employment; continued segregation and discrimination in housing and voting; and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
As the cases of Rodney King, James Byrd, Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo demonstrate, we have not yet met the challenge of creating a colorblind society. While officially sanctioned segregation has been eliminated, de facto segregation and persistent racial discrimination continue in parts of our society. We continue to search for the best means to eliminate all forms of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination within a pluralistic federal system of government.
Our experience also demonstrates that committed democracies can make strides to overcome the legacy of racism. And with this in mind, we look forward to the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance next year in South Africa as an occasion to share experiences and best practices with other nations engaged in the same search for solutions.
Toward that end, a White House task force has promoted a robust, domestic preparatory process that has included state and local government officials, as well as academics in civil society. We are looking forward to the constructive dialogue this report will spur, both here in the United States and abroad, and to discussing it once the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination schedules its formal review of our report.
Thank you. Assistant Attorney General Lee and I now stand ready to answer any questions you might have.
QUESTION: Harold, the report speaks of affirmative action programs as one of the ways that the government has chosen to try to eliminate racial discrimination. Would you talk a bit more directly about Proposition 209 and other state programs to stop affirmative action? Is this back-sliding? Where does it -- how does it go?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Let me address the international piece of it, and I will let Bill address the Prop 209 question. Affirmative action is contemplated within the Race Discrimination Convention itself, in Article 1.4 of the Convention, which suggests that various kinds of remedial measures may be appropriate to eliminate racial discrimination and its effects.
MR. LEE: A substantial amount of affirmative action programs continue to exist, notably in the area of minority contracting. The Congress, I believe, two years ago reaffirmed its commitment to provide programs to overcome the legacy of discrimination and present hurdles in terms of minority contracting.
With respect to education, the picture is -- well, with respect to affirmative action generally, the law is being sorted out for -- I believe the law has actually been somewhat clear for quite a while, but we had a recent case five years ago extending to the federal government the existing standards governing affirmative action. This is an area, obviously, where courts and states have been active. The State of California, in the case of 209, rescinded its affirmative action provisions for public education contracting and employment. Some federal courts have rescinded.
But, on the other hand, other states have maintained programs, and there have been some experiments with programs, notably in the states of Florida and Texas. But the picture is one in which, as the report points out, there are continuing efforts along these lines.
QUESTION: A number of NGOs have called this report the most comprehensive look at racial discrimination in the United States since the 1969 Kerner Commission Report. Would you agree? And, secondly, which of the problems that you lay out here seems to be the most intractable, the most difficult to resolve?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I think it is a comprehensive report. It serves a different kind of purpose. The Kerner Commission Report arose at a particular moment in history and were addressing a particular set of domestic concerns. This is trying to explain to an 18-member committee of legal experts from different countries of the world the extent to which the United States has sought, both through its federal programs -- executive, legislative, and judicial -- as well as state programs, to comprehensively address the problems of racial discrimination in America. So, to a certain extent, it is written for an audience that does not know much about the United States or the way that it is governed.
I think what you see when you read through the report is that ours is a nation of laws and legal institutions, and what separates us from some other countries is the extent to which our commitments under the Convention are thoroughly reflected in a web of law -- statutes, enforcement programs, activities under almost every federal agency, state activities -- and how different phenomena are being tackled by these agencies working together in an effort to try to comprehensively address the problem.
MR. LEE: The Kerner Commission in many ways was a wake-up call. This is a very different report. What is documented is not just a history, an unfortunate history; it is also a substantial enforcement effort. Yes, laws -- and they are listed rather exhaustively -- but also administrative agencies and what they are up to, and what they have identified as particular problems. I think it would be difficult, frankly, to tell you the one problem that seems to be hardest. But I think this is an honest report; it points out not only what the problems are but what is being done. And I think the message is what is being done is very substantial.
QUESTION: When you speak in the report of inadequate funding of anti-discrimination agencies, and that that has led to lack of enforcement of civil rights laws, could you be more specific which agencies, which laws, are this problematic?
MR. LEE: I guess the report, in some sense, speaks for itself, but let me talk about my own agency. The Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice for many years was pretty much flat-lined but, last year, the Administration was able to obtain almost a 20 percent increase in our budget. And that has led to enhance our ability to do work in police misconduct, hate crimes, the Americans with Disabilities Act, in terms of enhancing our enforcement there -- the kind of work that Harold referred to in terms of mortgage lending. It has real world consequences.
I think that the happy news is that the Administration has obtained increases in the last few years, not only for the civil rights division, but for the EEOC, and also for the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. And the Administration is pressing for more such increases.
I think that the thrust of the report is that the enforcement effort is a big part of the message. I think the funding, obviously, is a very important part of that. But it is something that the Administration is paying a lot of attention to.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I should just make it clear that the Justice Department is not the only agency that we believe has insufficient funding for its human rights enforcement efforts. (Laughter.)
MR. LEE: They didn't ask about that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: How do you reconcile the report's finding that there is persistent racial discrimination in American society with your remark of -- that this is the land of promise, I think you said, exemplified by yours and Mr. Lee's presence here today?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I think the fact of the matter is that there are many countries in the world in which it would simply be impossible for people of our ethnic heritage or background or occupying a comparable position to achieve positions of authority in society. To say that, and to say that America is a land of, in my judgment, incomparable opportunity for people of different colors and backgrounds is not to say that our society has achieved anything close to perfection. We are a system of imperfect human beings trying to enforce a system of universal human rights. I am very proud of what our country has accomplished; at the same time, as I think both Bill and I are completely honest about the areas in which it continues to be lacking.
QUESTION: Can I follow on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Sure.
QUESTION: You said earlier that the report is presented to nations who may not be familiar with the United States. This was a new look for some. Do you feel that it is a full and complete picture? Do you express in this report that you think the United States has this incomparable opportunity for minorities?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I think we do express that view. I think they understand that we express that view. Let me just point out that when we present the report to the committee, we will make an oral presentation; we will be asked a series of questions; and then we will make a series of oral responses. The process is similar to that done under other conventions to which we were a party. Earlier this year, Billy Yeomans, Mr. Lee's chief of staff, and I appeared before the Committee Against Torture for two full days to make a presentation, and in that, we tried to give a fully textured picture in addition to what is in the written submission.
MR. LEE: Now, ours is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy, and more of the world is approaching that. And, in a sense, we are further ahead. Thirty percent of our population is non-white. And, yes, there has been tremendous progress. But as Harold's statement makes clear and the report makes clear, we have had a history and we have continuing problems. But we have also had these mechanisms in place to try to address problems.
I think that we look forward to the World Conference on Racism because we think we have learned some lessons. We have learned some lessons about how to deal with the realities of life in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic setting. And some of these lessons are lessons that we have learned the hard way. And that doesn't mean we have all the answers because we look forward to the conference, also, because we figure we could learn a lot of things.
But I think that this is a report that I think other nations might find very interesting, because more and more in the world, I think nations find themselves with minority groups, and sometimes those relationships can be very contentious. We all have these issues and concerns, and we need to sort of pool our best knowledge of how to move on.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Actually, if I could just add, one of the things that I find in my own work is the contrast between how relatively smoothly our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society functions compared to many of the others that we are studying, in which the ethnic conflicts are virtually intractable. Part of it is our much longer experience. But this is what makes this an important document as we prepare to attend the World Conference Against Racism, which is being hosted by the UN and is under the directorship the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. That is taking place in South Africa in the fall of 2001.
There are four regional meetings that will be occurring over the next year: in Santiago, Chile, this fall, and then in Strasbourg, France, Tehran, and also in Dakar, Senegal. And the World Conference on Racism has been a lot of attention from the White House, which has set up a task force to address the question. We have had a series of preparatory meetings in the United States to talk to American groups about how the American experiment in racial diversity is working. During this past summer, there were meetings in Washington, Atlanta, Chicago and Albuquerque on some of the key issues that are going to be addressed at the World Conference Against Racism. So this report is an important factor in the very dialogue that Bill Lann Lee is discussing.
QUESTION: I want to ask about a couple of specific areas. First, environmental racism, which is a relatively new concern. Do you feel that there are enough mechanisms, laws, enforcement agencies, in place already to deal with this, or do you think the United States needs to build more infrastructure to deal with this particular problem?
MR. LEE: Well, we don't -- well, let me put it this way. The President issued an Executive Order several years ago to focus the attention of the federal agencies on environmental racism, for the reason that we don't have a particular agency that is focused on this particular problem. The Environmental Protection Agency is leading that effort on behalf of the federal agencies, and they are in the midst of issuing guidance.
We have a situation in our country where environmental enforcement is occurring not only at the federal level, but at the state level, and EPA is the appropriate lead agency on this because they coordinate. The Department of Justice has been assisting EPA in offering guidance.
This is an area that in some ways is our newest concern of many civil rights advocates. And the Department of Justice has been paying some attention and we've had some initial litigation in this area in the form of amicus briefs. But I expect that domestically it will continue to be a concern. And I expect that across the world you'll be seeing the same kind of developments and the same concerns.
QUESTION: So you think more laws are necessary?
MR. LEE: Well, I'm not sure if the need is for more laws or more attention by enforcement agencies. These complaints simply did not -- there were very few such complaints, let's say 10 to 15 years ago. And as the years have gone by, more and more concerns have been raised by individuals, communities, particularly minority communities.
And I think my sense of it is that different levels of government are paying more attention to it. And what the President was trying to do in the Executive Order was galvanize the federal agencies to have a coordinated response to that. And I think that that is still in progress. And the EPA will be issuing guidance to the federal agencies pursuant to the Executive Order very soon.
QUESTION: This is one of the newest areas of concern. One of the oldest is Native Americans.
MR. LEE: Right.
QUESTION: Dating back to the arrival of the first European settler.
MR. LEE: That's right.
QUESTION: Why has that problem been so persistent? Why has there been so little progress in that area?
MR. LEE: When you asked me that other question about intractable problems, it occurred to me that maybe I should talk about that.
At a time in our nation when the crime rates are actually dropping, crime rates -- violent crime rates -- on Indian reservations actually are increasing. The levels of poverty are intense. The President and other federal officials have made trips to Indian country to try to focus attention on that. On behalf of my own agency, the Attorney General has made a lot of efforts to get more funding in law enforcement and for all kinds of efforts in Indian country. In the Civil Rights Division, we have always had an effort to enforce the existing civil rights laws in Indian country.
What am I talking about? Cases like voting rights; making sure that our Native American population can participate in elections; employment discrimination cases, cases about equal educational opportunities, things of that kind. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior has made some well publicized statements recently acknowledging an unfortunate history and dedicating itself to try to do more in terms of providing assistance, particularly to children.
I don't know why. I guess in an ultimate sense I couldn't give you an answer why we have that persistent problem. But it's a persistent problem. And I think this Administration has, in a sense, paid more attention to it than others. And one of the ways we've done that is try to expose the problem and to admit not only that there's a problem, but to try to talk about how widespread it is.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Maybe I can just add on that, in addition to the problems of racism and racial intolerance with regard to Native Americans, there's an important problem of Native American autonomy. If you look in our Constitution, it recognizes three kinds of government -- federal, state, and Indian tribes. And how to reconcile that -- some scope of autonomy for Indian tribes with the basic concept of national sovereignty has been a struggle throughout our history -- both with separate legislation, constitutional analyses, et cetera.
Now, that's not unique to the United States. The situation of indigenous groups around the world is the subject at the moment of a draft declaration that's negotiated on the rights of indigenous peoples, an OAS declaration that's simultaneously being negotiated, a new UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples.
Secretary Albright this summer became the first sitting Secretary of State to visit Indian country when she went to the Santa Clara Pueblo in Albuquerque in August. And it's a question that she encounters all the time when she travels around the world, most recently on her trip to Latin American where she talked to a number of the governments in the region about the issues that they face in trying to give both justice and some measure of autonomy to indigenous groups in their country.
QUESTION: When you said earlier that -- discussing the opportunities in the United States -- and I think you seemed to indicate that in other nations you couldn't hope to rise to the positions that you have here. And it made me wonder, do you suggest -- is there any other nation -- you almost seem to be saying that the United States represents more a model of racial tolerance than what this -- the report's finding of persistent discrimination. Are there other nations, or is there another nation that you feel provides more opportunity or is better for minority groups than the United States?
MR. LEE: I don't know how to answer that other than to say that my father was very happy to be an immigrant to this country and that, had he stayed in China, I guess I would be carrying (inaudible) around the farm. I don't think we're saying that the United States is necessarily a city on a hill of some kind. I think the point is that we in our history, I think, have gotten to the point of being a diverse society, ahead of many others. I don't know what I can say. I mean, I read novels written by -- in England, and I notice that a lot of the novelists nowadays are not white. And that's something that's happening not just in my lifetime, but in the last 10 years.
I think many countries are approaching the kind of point that we are. But the point is not whether things are so bad or things are so good. I think the point is we have a determination that's expressed in the most tangible form -- in the form of budgets, in the form of government enforcement, in the form of laws -- to try to deal with these issues. That's the point of this report. And it's a widespread, comprehensive effort. That's why this is a comprehensive report. This is not something in which we've only dealt with one piece of these concerns. We've dealt with a plethora of all these issues.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: If I could just add. When I said what I said, it was based on something that was said to me by a diplomat from another country when I first attended the UN Human Rights Commission. I was seated next to a diplomat from another country who asked me what my father had done. And I said that he had been Korean Minister to the United States. And he said -- and also Perm Rep from Korea to the United Nations.
And he said, so you're telling me that in one generation you've gone from being the Korean Ambassador to the United States to being the representative from the United States. And he said, that could not happen in my country or any of the countries represented here. And that's one reason why the United States is the leader on human rights. He said this with great admiration.
I think the point is that there may be other countries who have fewer problems of racial discrimination. They also may have less diversity to begin with, or more homogeneity. But I think you have a country of 273 million representing every racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural tradition, and a more sustained political struggle to address those questions and a more sustained constitutional and legal response by all branches of government than I've seen in any other country in the world.
QUESTION: Is the United States the leader, as you have just stated, Mr. Koh? Or are there countries that we look up to that we would place above us insofar as our dealing with racism is concerned?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: We don't play that game. The question is, who can we work with to try to address the problems as they arise elsewhere? The idea of the World Conference Against Racism is precisely for countries that have adopted different solutions at different moments in their history to share their best practices and experiences and to try to address common problems.
I think the notion is that every country seems to think that its own experience is unique. But when the countries gather together to discuss issue like indigenous peoples, racial discrimination and related intolerance, they find that they've had very analogous experiences and therefore there's a lot of value in figuring out who has done what and what kinds of political solutions they've reached.
We have never ranked countries, and we don't rank ourselves. I think the important thing is that we believe that our commitment is as strong as any and our determination to implement this commitment is as strong as any.
MR. REEKER: Thank you, both.
[end of document]
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