Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
How does the United States evaluate its own record on human rights? The answer was revealed when the U.S. submitted its 2nd report for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to the U.N. Human Rights Council last week. In the report, the U.S. offers a self-assessment of the progress made and challenges that remain on a host human rights issues addressed during the United States’ first UPR, back in 2010. The report sets the stage for the in-person review, scheduled for May 11 in Geneva, and offers an important jumping off point for the work of U.S. human rights advocates.
The UPR, a "peer review" conducted through the U.N. Human Rights Council, requires that the human rights record of each country belonging to the U.N. be reviewed once every four years. As a "peer review," representatives from every member of the U.N. have an opportunity to ask questions of and make recommendations to the country under review. The review, which is grounded in the U.N. Charter, the UDHR, human rights instruments to which the country is a party, and any voluntary pledges and commitments made by countries, is based on the national report submitted by the country under review, as well as on a compilation of findings and reports from U.N. human rights treaty bodies, special procedures and other relevant U.N. mechanisms, and a summary of reports submitted by civil society, including community groups and advocacy organizations. The UPR is intended to “promote the universality, interdependence, indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights.”
The U.S. underwent its first UPR in 2010. The first U.S. UPR resulted in 228 recommendations for ways in which the United States can improve upon its human rights record. The U.S.’s 2nd UPR report responds to the 173 recommendations that the U.S. supported in whole or in part from that first review. In 25 pages, the report touches on issues including state and local implementation of human rights; excessive use of force by law enforcement; racial bias in the criminal justice system; racial discrimination in areas including voting, housing, education and health; discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals and against persons with disabilities; capital punishment; the rights of indigenous peoples; immigration detention and the rights of migrants; gender equality in the workplace; national security and counterterrorism efforts; access to food, healthcare, education, housing, water and sanitation; and climate change.
Perhaps somewhat predictably, the report provides an overall upbeat assessment of human rights improvements in the United States, including legislative and policy initiatives and accomplishments under the Obama Administration.
Last fall, I posed the question of whether it is worth the effort for U.S. human rights advocates to engage in advocacy around the U.S.’s 2nd Universal Periodic Review. (Spoiler alert: the answer is “yes.”). One of the reasons I offered for the utility of engaging in the UPR is that, unlike the reviews conducted by the human rights treaty bodies, the UPR requires the United States to respond to each of the recommendations resulting from the review, thus committing itself to addressing a number of human rights issues. By offering a self-evaluation of how it is meeting these commitments, the U.S., in its 2nd UPR report, provides an important touchstone for advocates to engage in deeper dialogue with federal, state and local government, with grassroots communities, and with the general public about long-standing and new domestic human rights concerns.
Between now and May 11, there are several opportunities for U.S. advocates to give due credit to the United States for progress made on human rights issues, offer a more accurate assessment of where progress is lacking, and raise significant concerns that the U.S. report may gloss over or ignore altogether. The U.S. government has invited U.S. civil society to participate in a consultation regarding the report at the U.S. State Department on the morning of Friday, February 20th. Those interested must RSVP by this Friday (February 13th), preferably with a written statement.
And the U.S. Human Rights Network and allied organizations are hosting a series of U.S. civil society consultations and “diplomacy dialogues” in the lead up to the review. The first is scheduled for the afternoon of February 20th at Howard University in Washington, DC. Diplomatic representatives have been invited to the session to learn about U.S. human rights concerns directly from advocates, thus providing an opportunity for advocates to encourage UN missions to ask targeted questions of and offer constructive recommendations to the U.S. in May. Similar events are planned for March 26th at the University of the District of Columbia’s School of Law; March 27th in New York City (place TBD); April 15th at American University’s Washington College of Law; and April 17th at the Roosevelt House in New York. Information on each of these events will be made available on the U.S. Human Rights Network’s website.
Given the resources necessary to travel to Geneva, most U.S. advocates will not be able to attend the in-person UPR this spring. But there is a great deal that they can do from home to contribute to the review and to amplify domestic human rights concerns raised in (or omitted from) the U.S. report. Advocates can join a UPR working group hosted by the USHRN network and participate in the civil society consultations and diplomacy dialogues to offer UN representatives in New York and Washington, D.C. a U.S. advocacy perspective on the U.S.’s 2nd UPR report. They can encourage state and local officials to hold human rights consultations or hearings on relevant local issues that are addressed in the U.S. report. And they can leverage the UPR more generally to raise greater public awareness about domestic human rights concerns through social and mainstream media; op eds, blog posts, and twitter campaigns can respond to the U.S. UPR report, or be timed to coincide with the May 11th review. The U.S.’s 2nd UPR report isn’t the last word on human rights in the U.S. It’s a starting point for conversation.