A top human rights official at the United Nations has concluded that new voting restrictions pushed by conservatives in Texas and other states are diluting the political representation of people of color in the United States, where human rights protections are “far from comprehensive” and “even incoherent.”
“I conclude that there is in fact what could be described as an undermining of democracy, with a phenomenal number of legislative measures in different parts of the country which … have the effect of making the exercise of the right to vote more difficult for certain minorities,” said Fernand de Varennes, the special rapporteur on minority issues for the UN human rights office, during a press conference on Monday.
De Varennes has met with government officials, experts and civil rights groups in multiple states as well as Puerto Rico and Guam, where he decried the lack of national political representation for the people living in these U.S. territories. His visit comes nearly 60 years after Black revolutionary leader Malcolm X called on UN human rights officials to indict the U.S. government for anti-Black racism and oppression, a problem that, Malcolm X said, the U.S. could not even begin to address in the absence of international pressure and solidarity among people of African descent.
Following two-week tour of the U.S., de Varennes urged policymakers to overhaul the nation’s human rights laws to combat a “dramatic” increase in discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes against Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous people. Millions of Americans, especially people of color, are also threatened by growing economic inequality, environmental pollution and disparities in health care and education, he said.
“Though there were significant and hard-won human rights gains made mainly during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the USA stands out among Western democracies for its incomplete patchwork of human rights recognition and their legal protection, with minorities and [I]ndigenous peoples most likely left behind in times of upheaval, uncertainty and crisis,” he added.
The UN envoy’s comments also come as Republicans continue to block voting rights legislation in Congress and push statewide restrictions on voting fueled by former President Trump’s thoroughly debunked yet persistent claims of election fraud.
De Varennes was particularly concerned about Texas, where he said new voting restrictions passed into law by Republicans are expected to have a disproportionate impact on growing urban populations that threaten conservative political dominance in the state. De Varennes said the voting law, known as S.B 1, limits what poll workers can do to protect voters from partisan poll watchers who could harass or intimidate voters.
Since Democrats won the White House and a slim majority in Congress in 2020, Republicans in at least 19 states have passed 33 laws making it harder for people vote. Citing a decline in civil liberties and Trump’s efforts to overturn the election he lost, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently added the U.S. to its list of “backsliding democracies” alongside countries such as Poland and Slovenia.
Trevor Potter, president of Campaign Legal Center and a former GOP chairman of the Federal Election Commission, pointed to recent attempts by Republicans in Wisconsin to undermine a bipartisan elections agency and even threaten its members with criminal for charges making it possible for residents of nursing homes to vote during the pandemic.
“In recent months, partisan attempts to undermine legitimate and fair American elections have found shocking amounts of support and gained a concerning amount of traction,” Potter said in a statement on Monday.
Though state lawmakers in both parties are also redrawing electoral maps to maximize their political power, Republicans have an advantage due to their control of more state legislatures. Aggressive gerrymanders that dilute the electoral power of communities of color in states such as Texas and Georgia could provide Republicans with avenues for taking control of Congress in the midterm elections without winning the popular vote.
Critics say racial gerrymandering helps maintain white supremacy even as demographics in local communities and the nation as whole become less white.
“It is becoming unfortunately apparent that it is almost a tyranny of the majority where the minority right to vote is being denied in many areas,” de Varennes said.
There seems to be “three tier approach” to citizenship and voting rights for Americans, de Varennes said, with people living in Guam and Puerto Rico considered citizens but denied the right to vote in presidential elections and elect voting representatives to Congress, and people living in the American Samoa considered “only nationals” rather than citizens despite living under U.S. rule. Considering the legacy of slavery, racism and genocide in the U.S., it’s “not a coincidence” that most people living in U.S. territories are people of color.
“It seems hard to understand looking from the outside into the United States how you can have different levels of citizenship in the country,” he said.
Noting the murder of George Floyd and other high-profile police-perpetrated killings of Black people, de Varennes said Black people in the U.S. are most likely be imprisoned, denied the right to vote and targeted by hate speech on social media. He added that Indigenous people in the U.S. and its territories have experienced centuries of “dispossession, brutality and even genocide.”
Systemic racism disadvantages oppressed groups within the U.S. criminal legal system, one reason why Black and Brown people are disproportionately locked up in the nation’s vast systems of jails and prisons.
“I have been informed that minorities such as African Americans and Latinx in particular find themselves disproportionally at the receiving end of marginalization and criminalization that crushes them into a generational cycle of poverty, with a legal system that is structurally set up to advantage and forgive those who are wealthier, and penalizing those who are poorer, particularly minorities of color,” de Varennes said.
While he did not mention Trump or President Joe Biden by name, de Varennes did commend the U.S. government for making “significant changes” since the 2020 elections, including executive orders and hate crimes legislation approved by Biden in the wake of an increase in violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans.
However, de Varennes concluded that the U.S. must pass comprehensive national legislation to guarantee human rights for oppressed communities and live up to its international obligations and lofty rhetoric. The human rights expert will submit a final report on human rights for minorities in the U.S. to UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2022.
De Varennes’s report will come almost six decades after Malcolm X sought to internationalize the issue of Black oppression by bringing it to the United Nations as a human rights issue. The UN Human Rights Council avoided interfering with U.S. domestic politics for decades after Malcolm X’s death in 1965, although in recent years officials have toured the U.S. and weighed in on the impacts of current policy.
In June 2020, the UN council formally acknowledged Malcolm X’s request and finally adopted a resolution on human rights violations perpetrated by law enforcement against people of African descent as uprisings for racial justice raged across the U.S.
Speaking at the founding rally of the Organization for Afro-American Unity in 1964, Malcolm X said the U.S. government is not “morally equipped” to solve the problem of racism:
We feel that the problem of the Black man in this country is beyond the ability of Uncle Sam to solve it. It’s beyond the ability of the United States government to solve it. The government itself isn’t capable of even hearing our problem, much less solving it. It’s not morally equipped to solve it.
So we must take it out of the hands of the United States government. And the only way we can do this is by internationalizing it and taking advantage of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, and on that ground bring it into the UN before a world body wherein we can indict Uncle Sam for the continued criminal injustices that our people experience in this government.
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