U.N. Examines U.S. Human Rights Record

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 process on Friday.   Its presentation before the council and its subsequent Town Hall 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 at home.

“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,” Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer said 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.  But the government’s report also trumpeted rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, underscored the lasting legacy of the civil rights movement, and 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 Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights President and CEO Wade Henderson.

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, lacking a national human rights institution, not shutting down Guantanamo Bay, and its continued use of the death penalty.

Many of these same concerns were echoed by a number of civil society groups during a live-streamed Town Hall session held in Geneva that same day.  Government officials claimed that the administration cannot resolve many of those problems by itself.  Sixty-seven votes are required to ratify treaties in the U.S. Senate, the administration has to work with Congress to establish a human rights institution and to close Guantanamo Bay, and it cannot unilaterally eliminate the death penalty since it’s within the purview of the states.

A more formal response to the all 228 recommendations made by other governments will be delivered in March 2011.  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 professed human rights commitments, including those based on previous recommendations by U.N. experts and domestic NGOs.

For its part, The Leadership Conference along with its partners in the Human Rights at Home Campaign have 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 long standing policy of the Bush administration of non-participation who felt the 2006 reforms were not far reaching enough.