U.S. welcomes U.N. investigator's racism probe

UNITED NATIONS Mon May 19, 2008 5:37pm EDT

1 of 2. Supporters reach out to touch the hand of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama after he spoke at a rally in Dallas, February 20, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.S. envoy to the United Nations on Monday welcomed the visit of a special U.N. human rights investigator to probe racism but said the Human Rights Council should focus on "real problems" elsewhere.

The United Nations has said Doudou Diene will meet federal and local officials, lawmakers and judicial authorities during his visit, which runs from Monday to June 6. The focus of the visit is racism, which has become an issue in this year's U.S. presidential election campaign.

"We don't think (the visit) is needed but we welcome the visit," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters after a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

"I think it would be important for the Human Rights Council to spend its time on real problems and the problems of violations of human rights in countries that are notorious for their violations of human rights," Khalilzad said.

Among the notorious violators of human rights are North Korea, Iran and Belarus, he said.

Diene routinely visits countries to assess racism. Race has developed into a central issue in the United States ahead of November's presidential election because Sen. Barack Obama, the frontrunner in the Democratic nomination battle, could become the country's first black president.

His campaign has increased turnout among black voters but has also turned off some white voters in a country with a history of slavery and racial segregation.

Diene's three-week visit, officially sanctioned by the U.S. government, will cover eight cities -- Washington, New York, Chicago, Omaha, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Diene, a Senegalese lawyer who has served in the independent post since 2002, will report his findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council next year.

However, the United Nations has almost no clout when it comes to U.S. domestic affairs and is widely perceived by many as interfering. The United States is not among the 47 member states of the Geneva-based forum, but has observer status.

In a report last year Diene said Islamophobia had grown worldwide since the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States, carried out by al-Qaeda militants.

A U.N. panel which examined the U.S. record on racial discrimination last March urged the United States to halt so-called racial profiling of Americans of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent and to ensure immigrants and non-nationals are not mistreated. In racial profiling, a person's racial or ethnic background is taken into consideration when assessing the likelihood he or she will commit a crime.

The report also said America should impose a moratorium on the death penalty and stop sentencing young offenders to life in prison until it can root out racial bias from its justice system.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau, editing by Cynthia Osterman)