U.S. Human Rights Record Undergoes International Scrutiny

Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights, is in Geneva this week for the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s review of the United States’ human rights record. She is part of a delegation coordinated by the U.S. Human Rights Network, a network of organizations and individuals working to build and strengthen a people-centered human rights movement in the United States.

After more than a year of preparation over the phone, email, and even in webinars, Bergquist and her delegation colleagues got together Sunday to finally meet face to face. “Wow what a crowd!” Bergquist said. “More than 60 of us crammed into a hotel conference room (and the adjoining hallway) for a 3-hour meeting to finalize our preparations. The room was full of energy and excitement!”

Group members spent the evening polishing 2-minute working group statements, which were delivered in a formal briefing to the Human Rights Committee on Monday. And they plotted out their additional informal briefings with the committee and side events that target a broader audience in Geneva. They have an action plan for blogging, live-tweeting, and doing other social media outreach, too.

The following post, which originally appeared on the ACLU Blog of Rights, is just one of the blog post series that network members plan to write about the U.S. review.

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U.S. Human Rights Record Undergoes International Scrutiny

By Jamil Dakwar, Director, ACLU Human Rights Program
(This post and accompanying image originally appeared on the ACLU Blog of Rights on 03/09/14)

This week, the United Nations Human Rights Committee will review U.S. compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the U.S. in 1992. The review will cast light on a dark underbelly of American exceptionalism — our refusal to acknowledge that human rights treaties have effect overseas. Unlike most of the world (the only other exception being Israel), the United States continues to claim that human rights treaties don’t apply to U.S. activities overseas.

The review is a rare spotlight on human rights issues inside the United States, one of the few occasions where our government is forced to speak the language of human rights – rather than its usual constitutional and civil rights rhetoric – and explain its own violations. It is also attracting worldwide attention—so much so that the committee had to reserve a bigger hall to accommodate the sizable U.S. government delegation and more than 70 human rights advocates and observers who will be in attendance at the six-hour session. The entire U.S. ICCPR review will be broadcast live on UN TV and take place on March 13 and 14.

The review will shine an international spotlight on significant human rights issues in the United States: the rights of indigenous peoples, the death penalty, solitary confinement, voting rights, migrant and women’s rights, NSA surveillance and targeted killings.

The ICCPR protects basic human rights, such as freedom from torture and abuse, freedom from discrimination, the right to life and effective remedy, the right to privacy and freedom of expression, and many more. Since ratifying the treaty in 1992, the U.S. has been bound to uphold these fundamental protections and must undergo periodic reviews. The last time the United States appeared before this committee was in July 2006, when the Bush administration denied participation in numerous acts of torture while operating a web of secret CIA detentions abroad.

The ACLU submitted a shadow report to the committee highlighting examples of accountability gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current law, policy, and practice. Although the U.S. human rights record has shown marked improvement since its last review by the committee in 2006, most notably in the areas of LGBT rights and enforcement of civil rights by the Department of Justice, U.S. laws and policies remain out of step with international human rights law in many areas. In addition, the ACLU provided an update to the issues covered in our September submission to the committee, which addresses serious rights violations that have emerged in recent months. The report covers:

Anti-Immigrant Measures at the State and Federal Levels

U.S.-Mexico Border killings and Militarization of the Border

Solitary Confinement

The Death Penalty

Accountability for Torture and Abuse During the Bush Administration

Targeted Killings

NSA Surveillance Programs

More than ever, the U.S. is facing an uphill battle to prove its bona fides on human rights issues. The United States is not only seen as a hypocrite, resisting demands to practice at home what it preaches abroad, it is now increasingly seen as a violator of human rights that is setting a dangerous precedent for other governments to justify and legitimize their own rights’ violations.

While addressing United States’ breaches of privacy rights last January, President Obama said:

And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead. It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard. And I’ll admit the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating. No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account. But let’s remember: We are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity.

The ICCPR review process presents the administration with an opportunity to put President Obama’s words into action, not only in the context of privacy rights, but all other rights guaranteed by the ICCPR. This review will be the last in his term as president and will, in part, determine his human rights legacy. We look forward to briefing the committee members and observing the U.S. government review later this week, and hope that the concerns and recommendations raised by the ACLU and other groups will be meaningfully addressed by the U.S. government. The world will be watching.


Watch for blog posts about these subjects:

  • Live from Geneva! It’s Crunch Time for the UN’s Examination of the U.S. Human Rights Record
  • Human rights and mental health in the U.S.
  • Anti-immigrant measures, U.S.-Mexico border militarization, solitary confinement, death penalty, torture and abuse during the Bush administration, targeted killings, NSA surveillance program
  • Human rights defenders
  • Voting rights, Stand Your Ground laws
  • Human Rights Committee review of the U.S. (March 13-14)
  • Wrap up and overview of the week
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