Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other alt-right factions rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 12 August. Photograph: ddp USA/REX/Shutterstock
A UN committee charged with tackling racism has issued an “early warning” over conditions in the US and urged the Trump administration to “unequivocally and unconditionally” reject discrimination.
The warning specifically refers to events last week in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the civil rights activist Heather Heyer was killed when a car rammed into a group of people protesting against a white nationalist rally.
Such statements are usually issued by the United Nations committee on the elimination of racial discrimination (Cerd) over fears of ethnic or religious conflict. In the past decade, the only other countries issued with early warnings have been Burundi, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria.
The United States has been warned under the procedure in the past when Cerd raised the issue of land rights conflicts with the Western Shoshone indigenous peoples in 2006.
“We are alarmed by the racist demonstrations, with overtly racist slogans, chants and salutes by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan, promoting white supremacy and inciting racial discrimination and hatred,” said Anastasia Crickley, chair of the committee.
Donald Trump faced widespread criticism after he blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville. Although the Cerd statement did not refer to him by name, it called on “the government of the United States of America, as well as high-level politicians and public officials, to unequivocally and unconditionally reject and condemn racist hate speech and crimes in Charlottesville and throughout the country”.
Crickley also urged the US authorities “to address the root causes of the proliferation of such racist manifestations”.
Lecia Brooks, director of outreach for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights group, said the UN’s early warning underlined the need for American leaders to “clearly and unconditionally condemn hatred and bigotry”.
“It is a sad day when the president of the United States has so thoroughly failed to denounce white supremacism that UN experts must warn the US about the dangers of racism,” Brooks said.
“Unfortunately, Trump’s racist and xenophobic campaign, and his lukewarm condemnation of white supremacists, has heightened racial tensions in America to the point that it’s raising alarms in the global community.”
Sherine Tadros, Amnesty International’s UN representative, welcomed the UN’s move. “It is significant that the UN is speaking out publicly against the actions of the new US administration, which it so far has been reluctant to do,” Tadros said.
Jasmine Tyler, US program advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, urged the White House to heed the UN warning. “As a black woman raising a black son, and a human rights advocate, I can hardly believe the times we’re living in,” Tyler said.
“The Trump administration should take the Cerd’s early warning very seriously and rescind its decision to eviscerate the mandates and budgets of US civil rights institutions; end its attempt to exclude white nationalism from the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism programs; and end immigration and refugee policies based on anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment.”
The warning was issued on 18 August but came to light on Wednesday, the day after protests outside a rally by the president in Phoenix, Arizona.
Trump used Tuesday’s event to portray himself as the victim of events in Charlottesville, branding journalists who “do not like our country” as the true source of division in America. He also accused the “crooked media” of “trying to take away our history and our heritage” and read out previous statements that he said condemned hatred, bigotry and violence.
And he complained that the media had not given him enough credit for condemning hate groups. “I said everything,” the president said. “I hit them with neo-Nazi. I hit them with everything. I got the white supremacists, the neo-Nazi. I got them all in there, let’s say. KKK, we have KKK. I got them all.”
Protesters outside the Trump rally in Phoenix raise their hands after police used teargas to disperse the crowd. Photograph: Matt York/AP
The former director of national intelligence James Clapper later described Trump’s remarks as “downright scary and disturbing”. The former spy chief, who served under Democratic and Republican presidents, also called into question Trump’s fitness to serve.
“How much longer does the country have to, to borrow a phrase, endure this nightmare?” Clapper said on CNN.
Following Clapper’s remarks, the former British ambassador to the US, Peter Westmacott, compared Tuesday’s rally to Nazi Germany.
“Shades of 1933 Germany,” Westmacott tweeted, claiming Trump’s speech was “an invitation to autocrats” in countries without the US’s system of checks and balances “to play the same game more dangerously”.
Immediately after the rally, police said they used pepper spray to disperse protesters outside the rally – who numbered in their thousands, according to Arizona media – after being pelted with rocks and bottles.