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UN panel condemns Trump’s response to Charlottesville violence

FILE — President Donald Trump holds a rally in Phoenix, Aug. 22, 2017. Without mentioning Trump by name, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Aug. 23 denounced “the failure at the highest political level of the United States of America to unequivocally reject and condemn” racist violence. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

Tom Brenner/New York Times/File

Without mentioning President Trump by name, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Wednesday denounced “the failure at the highest political level of the United States of America to unequivocally reject and condemn” racist violence.

President Trump’s seesawing response to the deadly racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., has been rebuked by countless politicians, business executives, community groups, and religious leaders.

The leaders of Britain and Germany spoke about the need to condemn such violence.

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Now the United Nations has weighed in, too.

Without mentioning Trump by name, a body of UN experts on Wednesday denounced “the failure at the highest political level of the United States of America to unequivocally reject and condemn” racist violence, saying it was “deeply concerned by the example this failure could set for the rest of the world.”

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Trump’s wavering responses to the violence — he has blamed “many sides,” while also singled out the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi groups, and white supremacists for condemnation — has roiled his administration and unsettled rights advocates around the world.

“We were shocked and horrified by what happened,” the committee’s chairwoman, Anastasia Crickley, said in an interview, expressing disgust at the televised images of white supremacists’ torchlit parade through Charlottesville. “I was horrified as well by the way leaders of that movement were able to state afterwards that they felt secure in their support.”

In a two-page decision that was dated Aug. 18 but released on Wednesday, a day after Washington was informed, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination invoked “early action and urgent warning procedures” in deploring the violence and urging the United States to investigate.

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The urgent-warning procedure allows the committee to draw attention to situations that could “spiral into terrible events” and require immediate action, Crickley said.

The committee last invoked the procedures last year, when it condemned “reports of killings, summary executions, disappearances and torture, many of which appear to have an ethnic character,” in Burundi.

The committee called the Charlottesville violence, which took place mainly on Aug. 11 and 12, “horrifying” and said it was “alarmed by the racist demonstrations, with overtly racist slogans, chants and salutes by individuals belonging to groups of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan, promoting white supremacy and inciting racial discrimination and hatred.”

The committee cited two victims by name: Heather D. Heyer, 32, who was killed when a driver plowed a car into a crowd, and Deandre Harris, 20, who was savagely beaten by white supremacists wielding poles.

An Ohio man, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, has been charged with second-degree murder over Heyer’s death. The committee urged that “all human rights violations which took place in Charlottesville, in particular with regards to the death of Ms. Heyer, are thoroughly investigated, alleged perpetrators prosecuted and if convicted, punished with sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the crime.”

The committee also called on the United States to identify and address the root causes of racism and to thoroughly investigate racial discrimination, in particular against “people of African descent, ethnic or ethno-religious minorities, and migrants.”

Although doing so is rare, this was not the first time the committee has invoked the urgent-warning procedures in response to events in the United States.

In 2006, it expressed concerns about the Western Shoshone, a Native American community that had filed a complaint against President George W. Bush’s administration as part of a long-running land dispute.

The committee monitors compliance with the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the United States joined in 1994. The panel comprises 18 experts “of high moral standing and acknowledged impartiality,” who are elected to staggered four-year terms.

The urgent-warning procedure allows the committee to react without waiting for the periodic review of a member state’s conduct, which typically occurs every four or five years, according to Andrew Clapham, professor of public international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

The United States has clashed with the United Nations on such issues in the past; in 2009, it withdrew from a world conference on racism over concerns that it would be used as a platform to criticize Israel.

The US Constitution offers robust protections for racist speech (but not for incitements to violence), while some European countries explicitly prohibit neo-Nazi and other bigoted rhetoric.

In its condemnation of the Charlottesville violence, the UN committee urged that First Amendment protections not be “exercised with the aim of destroying or denying the rights and freedoms of others,” or “misused to promote racist hate speech and racist crimes.”

But that call is unlikely to change anything in the United States. As part of the committee’s most recent assessment of the United States, in 2013, the committee criticized the lack of a law banning racist hate speech. It also raised concerns about underreporting of hate crimes by victims to the police, and called for improvements in data collection and training.

“We believe it is time that the United States considered these matters and considered seriously that balance, between freedom of expression and hate speech,” Crickley added. “Whether freedom to publicly and collectively express neo-Nazi views and to chant racist hate speech in effect constitutes freedom of expression — I think that’s a question that needs to be seriously addressed in the USA.”

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