Activists critique US government performance at UN Human Rights Review

November 5, 2010, Geneva

US activists in Geneva observing the government’s first-ever review by the UN’s top human rights body said the government failed to convince the world of its positive human rights record.

“If the US government delegation’s objective was to reclaim the mantel of global human rights leadership, it failed miserably in that effort,” said Ajamu Baraka, Executive Director of the US Human Rights Network (USHRN), immediately after observing the US review. “What we heard instead was an eloquent defense of US ‘exceptionalism’ – its view of itself as somehow having a ‘special status’ that does not require it to conform to internationally recognized human rights norms and standards.”

“On the positive side, it was gratifying to see the constant drumbeat of criticism from the international community over issues US activists have been raising for years – such as the continued use of the death penalty, racial discrimination, the lack of a US national human rights institution to monitor domestic human rights practice, and the lack of treaty ratification.”

“Fortunately, the US will not be able to dismiss these criticisms as mere ‘political rhetoric’ by its ‘enemies’. The criticism came from a host of states, including US allies such as the UK, France, Australia, and Switzerland.”

The UN Human Rights Council’s “Universal Periodic Review” is the most important review of a countries’ human rights record by the 47-member Council.  Every UN member state is obliged to submit to review every four years.

The US Human Rights Network (USHRN), which represents over 300 civil and human rights groups in the US, sent a delegation to Geneva for the review.

Human rights concerns raised consistently during the review of the US record, among others, were:

·       the continued use of the death penalty;

·       racial disparities in the US criminal justice system;

·       the sentencing of child offenders to life without the possibility of parole;

·       the US failure to ratify key international treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The US is one of only two countries in the world not to have ratified the Child Right Convention, with Somalia.

“It was clear to all in those listening that the US is not meeting the minimum requirements set forth by the international community when it comes to the human rights of its people – let alone being able to claim the mantel of being a global ‘human rights leader,’” said Ajamu Baraka.

“The US delegation, upon its return home, needs to ensure that this government buckles down to work and engages in a real, constructive process to fix the human rights problems in the US based on the recommendations they heard today.”

The US Human Rights Network was formed to promote US accountability to universal human rights standards by building linkages between organizations and individuals. The Network strives to build a human rights culture in the United States that puts those directly affected by human rights violations, with a special emphasis on grassroots organizations and social movements, in a central leadership role. The Network also works towards connecting the US human rights movement with the broader US social justice movement and human rights movements around the world.


U.S. defends human rights record at U.N.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States defended itself against criticism of its human rights record from friend and foe alike on Friday in a United Nations forum that the former Bush administration had boycotted as hypocritical.

Senior U.S. officials said President Barack Obama’s government had begun “turning the page” on practices of George W. Bush’s administration that had caused global outrage, and denied allegations that the U.S. used torture.

“Let there be no doubt, the United States does not torture and it will not torture,” Harold Hongju Koh, State Department legal adviser, told the council. “Between Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo we have conducted hundreds of investigations regarding detainee abuse allegations and those have led to hundreds of disciplinary actions.”

Bush had shunned the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying it did not need to be scolded by countries such as Syria and Cuba whose own records on human rights were poor. It also accused the council of being biased against Israel.

But U.S. conduct in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its campaign against terrorism — notably its treatment of prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay prison and the Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad — has come under heavy criticism from many human rights organizations in recent years.

The Obama administration was committed to closing Guantanamo and ensuring that all detainees held at home or in the war on terrorism were treated humanely, U.S. officials said. But closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, which now holds 174 detainees, was very complex and required help from allies, the U.S. courts and Congress.

The council will issue its recommendations on Tuesday and the U.S. delegation will indicate which of them are acceptable before reporting back in March when a final report is adopted.

The council’s first review of the U.S. rights record was part of a gradual examination of the performance of all 192 U.N. members over a four-year period.

Diplomats from countries at odds with Washington — some of whom queued overnight to be among the first on the speakers’ list — hammered the U.S. delegation for alleged abuses.

Cuban ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez spoke first, calling on Washington to end its embargo on the communist-ruled island and to respect its people’s right to self-determination.

Iran’s delegation accused the United States of violating human rights though covert CIA operations “carried out on pretext of combating terrorism.”

But allies also chided the United States.  European countries said Washington should ban the death penalty. Mexico urged it to halt racial profiling and the use of lethal force in controlling illegal migration over their border.

“U.S. officials were often reduced to restating current practices that grossly violate human rights, like the death penalty, poor prison conditions and sentencing youth offenders to life without parole,” said Antonio Ginatta of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International, recalling its long-standing appeals for ending indefinite detention of prisoners and trials before military commissions in Guantanamo, said that the United States must also hold accountable those responsible for torture. “These recommendations must be at the heart of rebuilding the United States’ human rights record,” it said in a statement.

“We feel we got a fair hearing. This is part of an ongoing process to engage with the Council and the U.N.,” Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told a news briefing after a three-hour debate.

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