Monday, May 11, 2015

The U.S. on Review

by Risa Kaufman,  Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute

Writing from Geneva:

 How does the United States account for its human rights record? 

That was today’s question at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, as the United States government appeared for its Second Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  The UPR is a "peer review" conducted through the UN Human Rights Council and requires that the human rights record of each country belonging to the UN be reviewed once every four years. The U.S.’s first UPR occurred in 2010.  

I’m privileged to be participating in a civil society delegation of over 40 U.S. advocates, coordinated by the US Human Rights Network, in Geneva to observe the review.  (If you weren’t awake at 3:00 am EDT to catch the live webcast, you can view an archived video of the review here.)  

Over the course of this morning’s three and half hour session, approximately 120 countries asked questions of and offered recommendations to the U.S., on issues ranging from race discrimination in the criminal justice system, restitution for victims of the CIA torture program, accountability for civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes, and privacy from arbitrary digital surveillance, to the gender pay gap, access to health care, and protection of the rights of migrant agricultural workers. While many delegations prefaced their comments by acknowledging the U.S.’s strong commitment to human rights and commending the U.S.’s engagement with the UPR process, each country noted areas where the U.S. can improve its record on human rights. Country after country urged the United States to abolish the death penalty, establish a National Human Rights Institution in accordance with international principles, and ratify core human rights treaties. 

Twenty-five government officials from seven federal agencies and the Attorney General of Illinois were on hand to answer questions and receive the recommendations.  In response, the government noted U.S. efforts in areas such as combatting violence against women, eliminating discrimination against LGBT persons, addressing discriminatory policing, releasing the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, and supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, among others, while acknowledging continuing human rights challenges, including in the administration of justice.  

Throughout the review, the U.S. highlighted the role of civil society in holding the government accountable for its human rights commitments.  After the morning session, the government hosted a consultation with members of U.S. civil society in Geneva for the review. (The government offered a call-in option for people to listen in from outside of Geneva, and an email address to send questions in advance.)  

At the post-review consultation, U.S. advocates asked hard questions and urged reforms which were in many ways similar to the recommendations that emerged during the UPR.  Advocates stressed the need for the federal government to eradicate racially biased policing and excessive use of force by law enforcement, to align the U.S.’s counterterrorism practices with human rights, to issue a National Plan of Action on racial justice, and to end family detention of immigrants.  Other issues were raised, as well, including the need to end long term solitary confinement, fully implement the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons, end violence against sex workers, address discrimination and violence against transgender people, and establish a right to appointed counsel in immigration proceedings. Martinez Sutton made an impassioned plea for justice and accountability for the death of his sister, Rekia Boyd, who was killed by a Chicago police officer in 2012. 

Of particular note, during the post-review consultation advocates registered strong disappointment with the Administration’s approach during the review to economic, social and culture (ESC) rights.  A number of countries raised ESC rights concerns during the review, including access to clean water, education, housing, and maternal health care.  Recently, the Administration appeared to take steps towards a more explicit embrace of ESC rights, including in a high profile speech given by former Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael Posner, in 2011.  In contrast, in the U.S.’s 2015 report, submitted in the advance of its second UPR, the Administration made reference to economic, social and cultural “measures.”  During the consultation, the Administration explained the change by stating that it indicated no change in the U.S.’s stance on ESC rights, but rather was intended to encompass a broader scope of ESC issues than covered by the U.S.’s existing commitments.  Yet, advocates emphasized the importance of naming ESC rights as “rights,” to empower marginalized communities to claim them as such. 

Another issue that emerged during the post-review consultation was the need to engage in meaningful dialogue about the human rights review with civil society back in the United States.  Disappointed that the post-review consultation only allowed for callers to listen-in, and did not follow the “town hall” format of the first UPR, U.S. advocates urged the U.S. to hold a more interactive state-side session as soon as possible, and to allow for wide participation.  In addition, several of us urged the federal government to disseminate the recommendations that emerge from the UPR to state and local officials, and to facilitate appropriate follow up and implementation of human rights at the state and local level.       

Is the UPR process perfect?  No.  Is it useful?  Yes.  As I’ve noted in a previous post, the process provides an important opportunity for U.S. social justice advocates to build the international record on the full range of human rights concerns within the United States while raising greater public awareness at home about pressing issues.  It also offers opportunities to engage in conversation with officials, at every level of government, through a human rights framework.  And the UPR offers an opportunity to keep up the pressure and reinforce the recommendations generated by other human rights mechanisms, including the three UN human rights treaty reviews that the United States recently participated in, and by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  

Later this week, the United States will receive the outcome report from today’s session, providing a summary of what transpired during today’s review.  It will then have a few months to contemplate how to respond before returning to Geneva to formally accept or reject each of the recommendations it received today. Between now and then, advocates can urge the government to accept those recommendations reflecting U.S. civil society’s concerns, and to commit itself to implementing meaningful reforms in response.  Perhaps when the third UPR comes around, the U.S. will be able to report more progress on human rights at home.

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