Pledges & Punts at the UN: The U.S. Government Responds to UPR Recommendations

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Today marks the formal end of the U.S. government’s second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But on many important issues, it’s really just the beginning of many years of work to implement the United States’ human rights obligations.

During the interactive dialogue part of the UPR in May 2015, the U.S. government received 343 recommendations from countries around the world. Today the government formally responded to each of them, stating whether it accepted, accepted in part, or noted (diplomatic UN-speak for “rejected”) each one. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby acknowledged that the United States hasn’t “been perfect in our efforts, and we still have many challenges.”

The Advocates for Human Rights has been engaging in advocacy throughout the UPR process, lobbying on the death penalty, immigration detention, and the rights of non-citizens. We submitted stakeholder reports on those issues back in September 2014, and we traveled to Geneva in March to lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council to encourage them to raise our issues in the interactive dialogue.

Those lobbying efforts were successful. For example, 45 countries presented recommendations to the United States on the death penalty, and 23 offered recommendations on the rights of non-citizens. The Advocates lobbied nearly every country that made recommendations on those issues.

Here are some highlights from those 343 recommendations, and the U.S. government’s responses:

Death penalty

Transparency on lethal injection drugs

Some of the U.S. government’s responses were discouraging. Knowing that the government was not likely commit to abolishing the death penalty, The Advocates lobbied France and many other countries to highlight the issue of state laws and practices that keep secret the identity and sources of drugs used in lethal injections. Transparency regarding the types of drugs used and the sources of those drugs is increasingly important in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which places additional evidentiary burdens on individuals seeking to challenge the proposed method of their execution as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

During the interactive dialogue in May, France took up our issue, recommending that the U.S. government “[c]ommit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Today, however, the U.S. government formally “noted” that recommendation, providing no explanation other than its position that the death penalty comports with our country’s human rights obligations.

Moratorium

In explaining the government’s decision to reject calls from 37 countries around the world to abolish–or at least consider a moratorium on–the death penalty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Busby told the Human Rights Council:

I’d also note that we received numerous recommendations–including from Ecuador, Austria, Lithuania, Congo, Nepal, and many others–concerning our administration of capital punishment. Domestic civil society also raised capital punishment as an issue of concern. While we did not support the majority of the recommendations on this topic, we respect those who made them. Our continuing differences in this are a matter of policy, and not what the rules of international human rights law currently require.

Racial bias and wrongful convictions

The U.S. government made some important pledges concerning the death penalty today. For example, we lobbied Angola and Poland about racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and about wrongful convictions. The government accepted these recommendations:

  • Angola: Identify the root causes of ethnic disparities concerning especially those sentenced to capital punishment in order to find ways [to] eliminate ethnic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
  • France: Identify the factors of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty and develop strategies to end possible discriminatory practices.
  • Poland: Strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring, inter alia, effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage.

We also lobbied on the issue of compensation for victims of wrongful convictions. The U.S. government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Belgium to “[t]ake measures in follow-up to the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee to the US in 2014 with regards to capital punishment such as measures to avoid racial bias, to avoid wrongful sentencing to death and to provide adequate compensation if wrongful sentencing happens.” In its formal response, the government stated that it “support[s] consideration of these recommendations, noting that we may not agree with all of them.”

Immigrant detention

The U.S. government made several pledges on the detention of migrants, accepting a recommendation from Brazil to “[c]onsider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.” The government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Sweden to “[h]alt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end the use of detention for reason of deterrence.” In its response, the government punted on the controversial use of immigrant detention to deter future migrants, but added that it is “working to shorten detention families may face while their immigration proceedings are resolved.”

One issue we lobbied on was the lack of due process in immigration removal proceedings. Honduras was particularly receptive to these issues, recommending that the United States “[e]nsure due process for all immigrants in immigration proceedings, using the principle of the best interest, especially in the case of families and unaccompanied children.”

Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for the unaccompanied children and families coming to the United States to seek asylum, so it was rewarding to see that government’s interest in the plight of its nationals.

In responding to Honduras’ recommendation, however, the U.S. government glossed over its international human rights obligation to ensure due process, instead asserting that “[n]oncitizens in the U.S. facing removal receive significant procedural protections.”

On the issue of the rights of children in immigration proceedings, the government ignored the fact that unaccompanied children have no right to a government-provided attorney, offering merely that “[t]he best interest of a child is one factor in determinations by immigration judges. [The Department of Health and Human Services] provides care and placement for children who enter the U.S. without an adult guardian, considering the best interests of the child in all placement decisions.”

Rights of migrants

Our lobbying and advocacy on the rights of migrants highlighted many of the findings in The Advocates’ groundbreaking report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. One of the issues we highlighted was discrimination against and profiling of non-citizens. Iran, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for an end to discrimination and violence against migrants and non-citizens, among other targeted groups. In partially accepting these recommendations, however, the U.S. government glossed over migrants, describing efforts “to counter intolerance, violence, and discrimination against members of all minority groups, including African-Americans, Muslims, Arabs, and indigenous persons.”

Another issue we highlighted is excessive use of force by officials on our country’s southern border. Mexico called on the United States to “[i]nvestigate cases of deaths of migrants by customs and border patrols, particularly those where there have been indications of an excessive use of force, and ensure accountability and adequate reparation to the families of the victims.” The government accepted the recommendation in part, adding that it “cannot support parts of this recommendation concerning reparations.”

The U.S. government expressed its support for recommendations to “[r]eview in depth migration policy” (Congo), to “[f]urther improve the rights of immigrants” (Senegal), to give “special attention . . . to protecting migrant workers from exploitative working conditions, specifically in the agricultural sector” (Portugal), and to “[e]nsure the rights of migrant workers, especially in the sector of agriculture where the use of child laborers is a common practice” (Holy See).

But in responding to Algeria’s call to “[t]ake necessary measures to combat discriminatory practices against . . . migrant workers in the labor market,” the U.S. government ignored the obstacles immigrant workers face in combating discrimination. As we explained in our stakeholder report,

“immigrants who experience discrimination often do not complain, either because they are unaware of their rights under the law, because it is easier to leave the employer than to pursue a complaint, or, for undocumented workers, because fear of deportation keeps them silent.”

The U.S. government, in responding to Algeria’s recommendation, ignored these complexities, stating simply that “U.S. federal labor and employment laws generally apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”

What’s next?

The U.S. government may be breathing a sigh of relief that the UPR is finally over, but The Advocates and other members of civil society know that today is just the beginning. Now we begin the process of working with the government to implement the recommendations the government accepted. And we haven’t lost hope for those “noted” recommendations–surprisingly, research shows that governments often implement, at least in part, UPR recommendations that they formally reject.

To learn more about the Universal Periodic Review process, read the chapter on Advocacy at the United Nations in The Advocates for Human Rights’ 2015 toolkit, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-Finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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