Friday, November 5, 2010

Dui Hua’s Observations from Universal Periodic Review of US Human Rights Record

On November 5, 2010, the United States underwent its first Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations in Geneva. Dui Hua Program Officer Tobias Smith attended the review, and wrote this dispatch following the event:

Even for those who doubt the United States’ commitment to the United Nations Human Rights Council, it’s difficult to dismiss the American government’s preparation for the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the US human rights record. In anticipation of the National Report submitted to the Office of the High Commissioner in August, the US government consulted with over 1,000 civil society participants at eleven locations throughout the country. For the UPR itself, the government dispatched more than 30 US delegates, including three assistant secretaries of state, representatives from the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of the Interior, and state and local agents.

While the high-profile representation was a welcome indicator of this administration’s willingness to engage in international human rights dialogue, it was also a natural response to the array of interests that lined up (literally) to be heard at the UPR. Countries sign up for two-minute slots to voice recommendations, and the queue to join the list can be competitive. Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, and others reportedly worked together to make sure they were at the head of the pack. This strategy led Germany’s representative to quip that he hoped “those states will apply the same commitment to their own human rights at home [as they did to getting on the list].”  Despite the push to be heard first, these countries’ recommendations were for the most part moderate, and they overlapped heavily with comments voiced by many of the 56 countries that spoke.

The most often raised recommendations included: encouraging the United States to ratify international treaties such as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; ending racial profiling and racial disparities; closing the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay; creating a human rights commission in line with the Paris Principles; and placing a moratorium on the death penalty. The call for a moratorium was particularly pervasive, and was raised by 20 countries, virtually all of them Western democracies.

At intervals throughout the UPR session, the US delegation had opportunities to respond. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner took on the question of why the United States has not ratified many commitments, saying that while some countries ratify treaties before complying, “The US follows a different path. We attempt to comply before ratifying.” He said that the Obama administration is committed to ratifying the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and that there is a vigorous domestic debate on creating a human rights commission in accordance with the Paris Principles, but he did not provide a time frame for either. Harold Koh, the State Department’s Legal Advisor, took on the question of the closure of Guantánamo Bay. He said that President Obama has expressed his desire to do so but that he faces legal hurdles as members of Congress have opposed the transfer of many of these prisoners to other facilities. Koh also tersely addressed the possibility of a moratorium on the death penalty, stating that while “this is a subject of vigorous debate and litigation in the United States…Many Americans who are personally opposed to the death penalty, including myself, nonetheless recognize that the death penalty is nowhere prohibited by international law.”

Although the United States did not comment at China’s Universal Periodic Review in February of 2009, China did offer comments to the United States. China’s representative noted some progress in health care and education, but also pointed out with concern gaps in protections in human rights, including excessive use of force by law enforcement, discrimination against Muslims and African-Americans, and inhumane detention of immigrants. The Chinese representative recommended that the United States ratify core treaties, end excessive use of force by law enforcement, close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and bring the United States in line with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The US UPR concluded in the morning. In the afternoon, the US delegation hosted a town hall-style forum for NGO representatives. This was a savvy move, as NGOs attended the event in record numbers, with many holding side events throughout the week leading up to the review. In fact, NGO presence was so strong that access to the UPR itself was limited to two representatives per NGO. Notably, the concerns raised at the forum differed from those brought up by countries during the UPR. The death penalty, for instance, was not mentioned once, and international treaties received less attention. Questions were specific and wide-ranging, though the topic of repatriation of indigenous peoples’ lands probably received the most discussion.

On Tuesday, November 9, the Human Rights Council will adopt the summary on the UPR, and the US government will have until March of 2010 to formally respond. Overall, the United States appeared to make a good faith effort to engage in this UPR—and hopefully this will translate into a commitment to address many of the legitimate concerns raised during the process.