Posted by Antoine Morris, civilrights.org
WASHINGTON - For the first time in its history, the United States defended its human rights record before the United Nations Human Rights Council under the new Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Its presentation before the council and its subsequent Town Hall meeting with various nongovernmental organizations was the culmination of an extensive process in soliciting input, as required by the UPR process, on the state of human rights in the U.S.
"For the United States, the UPR is a conversation in Geneva, but also one at home with our own people, to whom we are ultimately accountable. We have made the participation of citizens and civil society a centerpiece of our UPR process," said Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Dr. Esther Brimmer in her opening remarks before the 47-member rights body.
In August, the U.S. released a 20 page self-audit of its human rights record reflecting in large part its nationwide consultations on such topics as post-Katrina recovery, housing discrimination, racial profiling, hate crimes, and disparities in access to quality health care. While addressing shortcomings, the government's report also positively noted rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, underscored the lasting legacy of the civil rights movement, and applauded more recent achievements such as health care reform and President Barack Obama's signing of several key civil rights bills into law.
"We are pleased that three of our key legislative achievements were highlighted by the Delegation: the adoption of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010," said Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Nevertheless, the U.S. faced criticism for failing to ratify a number of human rights treaties — particularly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) — for lacking a national human rights institution, for not shutting down Guantanamo Bay, and for its continued use of the death penalty.
During a live-streamed Town Hall session held in Geneva on the same day of the UPR presentation, officials from the Obama administration also took questions from a range of civil society groups and organizations. Many of these groups continued to raise questions about the death penalty, commitments to international treaties, and prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Government officials argued that the Obama administration cannot resolve many of those problems by itself. They pointed to the facts that sixty-seven votes are required to ratify treaties in the U.S. Senate, that the administration has to work with Congress to establish a human rights institution and to close Guantanamo Bay, and that the federal government cannot unilaterally eliminate the death penalty since it's within the purview of the states.
Human Rights at Home
But one thing that does remain within the administration's sole discretion is the ability to establish an interagency working group charged with bringing the U.S. into greater compliance with its stated human rights commitments, including those based on previous recommendations by U.N. experts and domestic nongovernmental organizations.
For its part, The Leadership Conference, along with its partners in the Human Rights at Home Campaign, has been urging administration to issue an executive order to do precisely that. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Mike Posner noted that an order of that kind is currently being reviewed but came short of specifying a timetable on when it would be issued.
Due to a round of reforms adopted in 2006, each of the 192 U.N. member states are required to undergo a review of its human rights record every four years by the newly created U.N. Human Rights Council. Previously, only those members of the pre-reform U.N. Human Rights Commission were reviewed. As a result, many autocratic countries sought seats on the then-commission to block probing examinations of their own records. In choosing to join the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009, President Obama reversed a policy of nonparticipation by the Bush administration which argued that the 2006 reforms were not far reaching enough.