NEW YORK — A U.N. expert on racism and xenophobia arrived in Washington yesterday for a three-week fact-finding visit to examine human rights lapses in the United States.
It is the second time in recent weeks that international attention has focused on the U.S. record on human rights. Earlier this month, the advocacy group Freedom House released an evaluation critical of the U.S. record on access to health care, education and equal justice for minorities and immigrants.
U.S. officials publicly are taking the high road on the visit of U.N. rapporteur Doudou Diene of Senegal.
"I think it's important for the [U.N.] Human Rights Council to spend its time on real problems and the problems of violations of human rights of countries that are notorious violators," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, offering a list of suggestions. "But we welcome the visit."
Mr. Diene's U.S. tour coincides with the General Assembly's annual elections of new members to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. Several countries with less-than-stellar human rights records are in the running for the vote tomorrow.
The rapporteur plans to visit New York, Chicago, Omaha, Neb., Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, "to gather first-hand information on issues related to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance," according to a statement issued last week by his office.
Mr. Diene also will meet with federal and state officials, as well as lawmakers and legal analysts. He will hear complaints lodged by private advocacy groups, politicians, academics and activists.
U.N. officials could not say what specific issues Mr. Diene will investigate, nor the officials with whom he will be meeting. His staff declined to return phone messages yesterday.
Previous U.N. human rights rapporteurs in the United States have come to harsh conclusions about the prevalence of racism in the U.S. justice system, from inferior legal representation for minorities to charges of racial bias in imposing the death penalty.
Mr. Diene, a lawyer by training, has written extensively about Islamophobia in the 6½ years since the World Trade Center attacks.
Human rights specialists, who are chosen by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council but schedule country visits according to their own concerns, generally request a visa and then await a formal invitation from the government.
The Clinton and Bush administrations have accepted visits from nearly a dozen U.N. rapporteurs over the past decade, on topics ranging from the maltreatment of women in prison and religious intolerance to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and child pornography.
A coalition of human rights advocates welcomed Mr. Diene's visit.
"The visit of the special rapporteur is a critical opportunity to shed light on the pervasive and systemic problem of racism and discrimination in the United States," said Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union.
"In this election year, the eyes of the world will be turned toward America and its long-standing promise to end racial and ethnic inequalities."
Mr. Diene, one of two dozen country-specific or thematic rapporteurs currently authorized by the Human Rights Council, will submit his report during to the council next year.
The Bush administration has had a cool relationship with the council, formed two years ago to replace the widely discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The council was revamped in part to prevent the world's worst human rights abusers from seeking seats as a way to shield themselves from criticism.
The reforms have not worked. Freedom House has rated nearly a third of the current council membership "not free."
Pakistan, also rated "not free" by the human rights group, is one of six candidates vying for four Asian seats.