An Appeal to Geneva: Racial Politics and Discrimination at the Founding of the United Nations
Human rights often pose a paradox - foundational human truths, such as freedom from oppression and discrimination are arguably some of the most contested rights in the world, spanning all continents, all countries, all races, all religions, and all peoples. Human rights were formally institutionalized by the United Nations in 1948. The UN definition of human rights inaugurated norms of such basic rights and the prioritization of them within a Western context and notions of world order post-WWII. With human rights established for the first time, it is important to be critical of the time frame and historical significance of political and societal culture of the West - most notably in the United States with racial segregation. With the US playing a critical role in the creation of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), by-products of politics and racism - the UN Declaration of Human Rights at its founding is inherently racists and discriminatory. How the UN defined, wrote and prioritized the UDHR and subsequent application of the declaration, fail to acknowledge the oppression and human rights abuses in the United States. The United States is insincere in regards to the role the US played in the creation and policies of the United Nations UDHR. The United Nations was created at a time when basic human rights were being denied to many citizens of African, Asian, South American and Indigenous descent in the United States. Forced segregation, Jim Crow laws, mob lynching and institutionalized racism, classism and sexism were experienced across the country. With a particular look at racism and the creation of the United Nations, a sense of injustice, inequality and Western ideology are at the core of the founding of the institution that represents the world. With the United States being the most influential leader in the creation of the United Nations, it is important to scrutinize the role the U.S. had in the creation of the institutional flaws of the UN.
The United States has one of the most complex and paradoxical histories of a democracy; built on the enslavement of Brown and Black bodies. Institutional racism will be defined and used within the context of the U.S. “...as the policies, programs, and practices of public and private institutions that result in greater rates of poverty, dispossession, criminalization, illness, and ultimately mortality of African Americans. Most importantly, it is the outcome that matters, not the intentions of the individuals involved.” This definition comes from African and Black Diaspora scholar, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. The fight for racial equality has been present in the US since the founding. Similarities between Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, “What is the fourth of July to a slave?” have similar tones to W.E.B. Dubois’ Introduction to Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of the Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress (The Appeal). While a key difference from 1852 to 1947 was that slavery was unconstitutional in 1947, the rough 100 years, however, did little to change the oppression and institutionalized racism of Brown and Black bodies in the United States. However, with the creation of the United Nations as an international institution, a mode of redress was able to be amplified beyond the borders of the so-called Land of the Free. An Appeal to the World began the foundational movement for future Black power and race-related rights to be addressed, recognized and contemporary ideologies to be contested through the use of international institutions such as the UN on an international level. The elevated attention and body of nations allowed for racial oppression in the U.S. to be heard on a much larger platform than previously in human history.
The Appeal was not the first document presented to the United Nations on the racial oppression and discrimination in the United States. On June 6, 1946, the National Negro Congresses (NNC) petitioned the United Nations’ Secretary General’s Office with A Petition to the United Nations on Behalf of the 13 Million oppressed Negro Citizens of the United States of America (the Petition). This 15-page petition outlines the “economic, social, political, and physical machine of oppression” experienced by Black bodies in the U.S. The Petition was distributed and gained positive responses around the world from Bolivia to the West Indies along with support from American groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). While the NNC was known for communist ideologies, the U.S. Government and primarily the FBI tried to discredit the Petition as communist propaganda and ‘un-American’. The UN required evidence to be gathered as proof that the rights of African Americans were being violated. Because of the organizational structure of the NNC, collection of evidence was almost impossible for the organization and the Petition was dropped. The NAACP leaders Walter White and W.E. Burghardt Du Bois’ inspiration came from the Petition and began to craft their own appeal. The chair of the Human Rights Commission was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also on the Board of Directors of the NAACP, Du Bois and White believed they had a fighting chance at the idea and believed Roosevelt would support their work (Anderson 2003, 93).
The Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of the Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress was written by W.E. Burghardt Du Bois; Earl B. Dickerson, Milton R. Konvitz; William R. Ming, Jr; Leslie S. Perry; Rayford W. Logan and presented to the United Nations
On October 23, 1947. Where the Petition was ideologically driven, it failed in being able to provide the appropriate structure that was required by the UN. The Appeal was able to fulfill the instructional bureaucracy, provide in-depth analysis and evidence, all while creating a compelling argument. The Appeal sought to change the way in which rights were conceptually understood and realized in the racial context of America. A movement and discourse to change from civil rights to human rights. The discourse was all within the freedom and equality struggle not just in the U.S. but racial equality around the world. Scholar Carol Anderson emphasizes that this was a critical move because equality from the perspective of white America and institutionalized racism understood equality as a slow progression to ‘equalness’ rather than the literal definition of equal. Through the conceptual shift to human rights, Du Bois then contends that the greatest threat to the US is within its own racist ideology. Du Bois gives a powerful introduction stating that, “When will nations learn that their enemies are quite as often within their own country as without? It is not Russia that threatens the United States so much as Mississippi; not Stalin and Molotov, but Bilbo and Rankin; internal injustice done to one’s brothers is far more dangerous than the aggression of strangers from abroad.” While history agrees with Du Bois in the importance of dealing with domestic issues, it is important to acknowledge that while simplistic, slavery, the Civil War, lynching, police brutality and racism at this time had killed more Americans than the Cold War ever did and ever would (including any proxy wars). The Appeal is a 94-page document and history of the grievances of Black and African-Americans organized chronologically; providing examples of oppression and discrimination. Organized by chapters from the USA's founding to pre-World War I; Black Legal status since WWI, present Black legal status from WWI to WWII; Patterns of Discrimination in Fundamental Human Rights; and concluding with the efforts made by the UN for Human Rights and rights of Minorities. The Appeal provides basic statistics, facts, and evidence, most of which was in the NNC’s Petition but dramatically expanded upon. The international component not only points of the hypocrisy of Western nations in DuBois stating that,
To disarm the hidebound minds of men is the only path to peace; and as long as Great Britain and the United States profess democracy with one hand and deny it to millions with the other, they convince none of their sincerity, least of all themselves… Most people of the world are more or less colored in skin; their presence at the meetings of the United Nations as participants, and as visitors, renders them always liable to insult and to discrimination; because they may be mistaken for Americans of Negro descent...
A critical aspect of The Appeal was the lack of state sponsorship, and the US had zero intention of sponsoring the document. While the African-American Black populations was larger than the population of some member states in the UN, the Petition was nonetheless dismissed as a domestic grievance and inapplicable.
The symbolism behind both the NNC’s Petition and the NAACP’s Appeal was one of the first instances of requesting redress beyond and acknowledgment of oppression within your own state to an international audience. The Petition and The Appeal at the time were politically disruptive towards American Foreign policy because of the danger of UN jurisdiction over “domestic affairs” and Cold War politics. The Soviet Union used America’s failings in racial equality in political attacks against the U.S. and democracy. On June 22, 1946, India filed a complaint with the UN with the South African Apartheid Government over racial discrimination laws that violated treaties. The Union of South African government claimed the mater outside the jurisdiction of the UN and that no internationally recognized human rights existed at the time.The matters of jurisdiction, defined and recognized rights became ever more a political discussion. Scholar Mary Dudziak emphasized the idea that if Apartheid human rights violations were enforceable by the UN, subsequently Jim Crow laws could be next and vice-versa. The U.S. had no interest in allowing for that to happen and neither did other nation-states’ such as Union of South Africa that had human rights violations occurring in their country and used what power they had to influence the UN to think and act in the interest of the US.
The Impact of the Appeal
The Appeal set into motion key Cold War ideological debates as well as provided a new international platform for the oppression of African-Americans and Blacks’ voices to be heard. One key and important response that The Appeal had was that of Eleanor Roosevelt’s refusal to be present and disdain to have The Appeal be presented to the United Nations. Roosevelt herself, who was a known critic of racial discrimination, refused to acknowledge The Appeal in fear of what The Appeal would do to America’s fight against communism. Her concern was sound in that the Soviet Union proposed that the NAACP’s charges be investigated. “On December 4, 1947, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights rejected the proposal, and the United Nations took no action on the petition”. The image of the US as a racial opressor, however, remained a significant battle for US foreign policy during the Cold War. As scholar Mary Dudziak points out in her book, Cold War Civil Rights, “If the [US] could not eradicate the conditions that gave rise to foreign criticism [racism in the US], it could at least place them ‘in context’... Rehabilitating the moral character of American democracy would become an important focus of Cold War diplomacy”. And so the United States, rather than foundational challenging and changing the racialized country created justifications and defenses for post-WWII segregated America.
The Appeal to the World not only significantly pointed out the flaws in American democracy, but the document also inspired documents of the like to be continuously presented to the UN. The petition, We Charge Genocide was presented to the UN in 1951 in Paris. We Charge Genocide created a linkage between police brutality and the inhumane targeting, profiling, and killing of a group of people based on notions of race specifically in the United States. The petition argued that police brutality crimes should be punishable by the UN Genocide Convention. The Appeal, and the subsequent We Charge Genocide created a notion for future Black Power leaders such as Malcolm X who in his famous speech, The Ballot or the Bullet in 1964 directly calls out the UN and highlights the need to define the oppression and the Civil Rights movement as a human rights issue, which appeared as well in the Appeal to the World.
“To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world”. - Frederick Douglass
To apply to modern times, to not acknowledge and scrutinize the motives, power politics and manipulation by the United States’ interest into the foundation of the creation of the first human rights laws is a server injustice not only the people whose human rights were violated but to also concede defeat to the belief that human rights only apply to certain people. While An Appeal to the World did not address, restore or equalize the rights of African-Americans and Black people in America, it did foster the scholarship and language in regards to how racial rights and therefore human rights are discussed in the context of the US. However the question remains, does the United Nations, or any international organization, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) serve in modern notions as a platform for human rights denials to be heard and addressed in the United States? Answering this question requires a realistic analysis of these institutions - particularly looking at the UN and ICC, two institutions based on the protection and defense of human rights. The hope of redress through the United Nations in 1947 was also centered on the hope of international support from South American states and in recently decolonized states in Africa. With the development of power and politics within the last 50 years - the hope of redress through the United Nations, in particular, is less likely. In regards to the ICC, the United States while signed the Rome Statute, that instituted the ICC, never ratified it and thus ICC does not have jurisdiction unless the United States consents to involve the ICC. Institutions such as the UN and ICC are forces of good and do valuable international work. While the creation of the United Nations was groundbreaking, it is critical to be mindful of the process that still needs to happen. The concepts and arguments created in The Appeal and in the formation go beyond the domestic sphere through international institutions and politics. Progress has been made, in that the UN now has a committee on The Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the United States is recognized as an obvious violator of racial equality. Racial inequality still exists in the world and in the United State. With movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, the fight for true equality continues.