When the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination calls out a country, it usually means that things have gotten pretty dire.
Last year, it slapped Burundi with a formal warning for “reports of killings, summary executions, disappearances and torture, many of which appear to have an ethnic character.” In 2014, it targeted the Islamic State for “crimes against humanity in Iraq.” In 2010, it fingered Kyrgyzstan, voicing deep concern about massacres and plunders of ethnic Uzbeks.
And on Aug. 18, the panel turned its attention to the United States.
In a direct rebuke of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville this month, the committee issued an “early warning” on the United States. In a statement that was made public on Wednesday, it described the march of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members as “horrific,” writing that it was “alarmed by the racist demonstrations, with overtly racist slogans, chants and salutes,” especially the “death of Ms. Heather Heyer” and “the injuries inflicted on many other protesters, as well as the terrible beating of Mr. Deandre Harris by white supremacists.”
The statement did not mention President Trump specifically, but it noted that committee members were “disturbed by the failure at the highest political level of the United States of America to unequivocally reject and condemn the racist violent events” and suggested that this lack of action has fueled a “proliferation of racist discourse and incidents.”
Trump waited hours before responding to the events in Charlottesville. In his initial statement, he blamed “many sides” for the violence that unfolded there and did not condemn any hate groups by name. A day later, in a prepared statement, Trump condemned the KKK and neo-Nazis. But a day after that, in an off-the-cuff news conference about infrastructure, Trump turned to Charlottesville and said there were “good people” on both sides during the protest, and he blamed what he called the “alt-left” equally for the violence.
Trump's comments prompted bipartisan outrage. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said the president “messed up.” Rep. IIeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) tweeted, “Blaming 'both sides' for #Charlottesville?! No. Back to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists? Just no.” Several members of the president's two CEO advisory boards resigned, as did his entire arts council. More than a dozen groups have canceled events at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida resort.
(Trump, for his part, continues to defend his response. At a Tuesday night rally, he spent several minutes re-litigating the issue, reading abridged versions of his statements.)
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is tasked with monitoring compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ratified in 1994. Its decisions focus almost exclusively on developing countries mired in ethnic and religious conflict, such as Burundi, Iraq and the Ivory Coast.
It has, though, occasionally targeted more-developed countries such as Israel and Australia. In 2006, the group warned that a Native American tribe in Nevada was being pushed off its ancestral lands in violation of their “rights as indigenous peoples.” In 2004, it called on Israel to draft an “urgent report” on its treatment of people living in the West Bank.
In letters — less urgent than warnings — the committee has called out countries for xenophobia, religious intolerance and violations of the rights of indigenous people.
The U.N. panel's warning on Charlottesville reiterates what U.S. domestic groups have been saying for months — that white supremacy and racism are on the rise in America. In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report that found that the number of hate groups in the United States has jumped for a second year. The report said that “the radical right was energized by the candidacy of Donald Trump.”