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Professor Marjorie Cohn
Thomas Jefferson School of Law
JURIST Contributing Editor

The United States government's walkout at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in South Africa belies our commitment to eradicating racism in this country. Although framed as opposition to resolutions condemning Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, the Bush Administration is really worried about international attention focusing on inequality here in the United States.

When the U.S. delegation left the conference, the South African government stated, "It will be unfortunate if a perception were to develop that the U.S.A.'s withdrawal from the conference is merely a red herring demonstrating an unwillingness to confront the real issues posed by racism in the U.S.A. and globally."

Our country is a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. That treaty requires us to condemn racial discrimination and to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy to eliminate racial discrimination. It also mandates that we guarantee to everyone without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, the rights to public health, medical care, social security, social services and the right to education and training.

Yet 139 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, vast disparities with respect to race pervade every aspect of American life. Non-English-speaking minorities are discriminated against in the educational system and widespread segregation still exists in public elementary and secondary schools. Extensive job discrimination endures in both the public and private labor markets. There are discrepancies in the incomes of white and minority high school graduates.

Racial profiling from the initial police stop to the charging process and trial through the sentencing procedure has been widely documented. Mandatory sentences of life imprisonment are imposed disproportionately on minority defendants. Non-whites are much more likely than whites to be charged with and sentenced to death for substantially similar crimes.

Police brutality against minorities came out of the closet with the videotaped beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and the execution of Amadou Diallo and the sodomizing of Abner Louima in New York. The Rampart Scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department proves that the problem encompasses more than just a few bad apples.

Environmental racism has resulted in the location of toxic waste dumps in communities of color. Hate crimes against racial minorities persist. Immigrants, also frequent victims of hate crimes, are often abused by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The United States boycotted prior United Nations conferences on racism in 1978 and 1983, also ostensibly because of resolutions equating Zionism with racism. Siding with Israel isn't based on the U.S. government's great love for the Jews, or concern for them as an oppressed people. It is Israel's strategic location in the Middle East, near the oil-rich Persian Gulf, that motivates the U.S. to support Israel, while disregarding repression in other global hotspots. The United States ignored the genocide in Rwanda, Turkey's scorched earth campaign against the Kurds, and the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Serbs from the Krajina reigon by the Croatian army in 1995.

U.S.-led NATO bombed the people of Yugoslavia for 78 days and then moved in to occupy Kosovo and Macedonia, not to stop ethnic cleansing, but to maintain American hegemony over European markets and transport routes for Caspian Sea oil. The United States will not, however, defy Israel by asking the United Nations to send observers or peacekeepers into the West Bank and Gaza, to stop the horrific bloodshed there.

Adjoa Aiyetoro, an attorney with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Washington, said of the U.S. decision to pull out of the conference: "We definitely believe it is a smoke screen . . . the United States is showing one more time [that] all this talk about freedom and liberty is a lie." She added, "They need to stop hiding behind and supporting Israel when the United States isn't even supporting its own people."

The other issue that terrified the Bush Administration about the 2001 conference was a demand that the U.S. pay reparations to African-Americans for the damage done to them by slavery. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D.-Mich.) reported that other delegates from the Congressional Black Caucus alleged the U.S. was using the Middle East issue as a smoke screen to avoid discussion of reparations.

Bush had decided not to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to South Africa for the conference, replacing him instead with a "mid-level" delegation, which staged the walkout. The Reverend Jesse Jackson aptly characterized this mid-level delegation as a "high-level insult."

The United States government was insulted when it was kicked off the United Nations Commission on Human Rights earlier this year. The self-anointed global human rights policeman should attend to the inequality and injustice at home. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told the delegates in South Africa, "Your anger can be valuable if you channel this into a worldwide racism struggle where all of your agendas converge." By its high-level boycott of the conference, the United States government is pursuing its own agenda of denial of the institutional racism that persists in this country.

Marjorie Cohn is an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, where she teaches International Human Rights Law. She welcomes comments on this essay at

September 5, 2001


  • Marjorie Cohn's article is clear eyed, honest and courageous. The duplicitous smoke screen out of Washington keeps our nation ignorant and isolated from the world community. Washington's policies which violate national and international law are pursued in face of universal condemnation. The legal profession needs more courageous voices to speak out in support of real Human Rights at home and against intervention abroad.

    Tanja Winter
    San Diego

  • Congratulations,Prof.Marjorie Cohn.Your essay on U.S boycott of Anti-Race meet at Durban is plainspeaking.When I read the piece on the pages of JURIST the first impression I had was a spontaneous recollection of Iago in Shakespeare's master-tragedy,' Othello'.Iago's character is a testimony to the fact that"one can smile and smile and smile and be a villain". Prof. Cohn has brought the Iago in the American policy on Racism. America's embarassment is understandable. Prof. Cohn succintly marshals the historic and contemporary conditions in America being a fertile land for racism to flourish.Despite the emancipation Proclamation, despite being a signatory to the International Convention to eliminate Racial Discrimination,despite being the "self-anointed global human rights police man",despite being the most" successful democracy" in the world, if American society is vulnerable to the type of racial violations as is described by Prof.Cohn the irressistable inference to be drawn is that" something is rotten "in America.If tyhe educational system, criminal justice system, poilce administration, environmental issues are vitiated by the malady of racism as is narrated by Prtof, Cohn then America has no locus standi to teach the out-side world about the virtues of human rights,non-proliferation,democracy, due process of law etc.America should come out of the" smoke screen." America can, because the American people are lovable, affable As is evidenced by the recent Global developments the international public opinion is strongly against America for the "high-level insult" done to human dignity.The opinion bursts out occasionally as it happened now at Durban and earlier at the UN Commision on Human Rights. Not USA alone. It is high time world opinion is chanelled into"a world wide racism struggle" as exhorted by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.Pitted against the back-drop of racial bias other democracies like UK, India, and Australia would also have to be highly vigilant in containing and eradicating the vice of racial segregation, exploitation and human rights violations. Memory is fresh with the recent ethenic clashes in UK. The report of the BBC correspondent Elizabeth Blunt in Durban regarding the aborginees of Australia is nerve-shattering.The plight of Yribals and Scheduled castes in India is no better.The Hon'ble Supreme Court has pulled up the Union and State Governments for the starvation deaths when buffer stocks of food grains are left to roddents, rats, and insects to thrive on.It is an afront to the very concept of human rights. While in several countries the NGOs sound alarm, in India the National Human Rights Commision headed by the most venerable Justice J.S.Verma former Chief Justice of the Su The Durban meet has brought to focus the issue and it is the duty of all well-meaning people governments NGOs and international institutions to tackle the menace once and for all. My thanks to Prof. Cohn.

    DR,K.P.Kylasanatha Pillay,
    Advocate , High Court of Kerala, India

  • Ms. Cohn truly is a courageous advocate for domestic human rights. During the past decades the abuses of these natural rights have been slowly gaining attention through the mainstream media. Still, the rights of capitalism exceed the right's of humnan beings, especially racial minorities and socio-economic minorities. With more voices such as Ms Cohn's standing firm towards a real commitment of honoring and respecting the natural God given equalities of man. We may see real progress towards this struggle in our lifetime.

    Dr. Robert R. Ward LL.B JD
    International Human Rights Association of American Minorities
    Washington, United States

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JURIST Contributing Editor Marjorie Cohn is an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, where she teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and International Human Rights Law. A news consultant for CBS News and a commentator for Court TV, she has co-authored a book on cameras in the courtroom with veteran CBS News Correspondent David Dow. Professor Cohn has also published articles about criminal justice, international human rights, U.S. foreign policy and impeachment. She is editor of the National Lawyers Guild Practitioner and is on the Roster of Experts of the Institute for Public Accuracy. A criminal defense attorney at the trial and appellate levels for many years, Professor Cohn was also staff counsel to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board. She has lectured at regional, national and international conferences, and was a legal observer in Iran on behalf of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.

Professor Cohn is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Santa Clara School of Law. She welcomes comments on her columns at