Sunday, June 28, 2020
By JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director of the Human Rights Project, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
As many readers of this blog know, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States, originally scheduled for May 11, has been postponed until November of 2020. The UPR is a peer human rights review mechanism established in 2006 by the U.N. Human Rights Council. Since its inception, the UPR has served to document the human rights records of all U.N. member states – and provided a vital platform for securing recommendations to governments that foster compliance with the full panoply of human rights.
The U.S. UPR will be based on three main inputs: stakeholder reports (from civil society), a U.S. government report, and a compilation of all the recommendations already made by U.N. human rights bodies. In October of 2019, advocates gearing up for the review submitted 139 stakeholder reports, sharing an array of perspectives on the United States’ human rights record. Since civil society reports were initially submitted, COVID-19 has ravaged communities around the world, and upended life for everyone. U.N. experts and regional human rights have commented extensively on the human rights implications of coronavirus, and global ngos, as well as national and local U.S. groups are documenting the impacts.
The UPR process was established to improve human rights compliance and “designed to prompt, support, and expand the promotion and protection of human rights on the ground.” For this goal to be achieved in the context of the current global pandemic, the review must address the impacts of the COVID crisis, and assess recovery and relief measures that governments around the world are employing. To ensure that the November UPR cycle includes coronavirus, human rights advocates from around the world are seeking the chance to make supplemental submissions that provide up to date information to shape the November review. On May 21st, 87 signatories joined a letter making this request to the Office of the High Commissioner and the Human Rights Council. This advocacy has been coupled with calls for the U.S. federal government to include information on how federal, state, and local governments are responding to COVID-19 in it's own report. (Notably, the United States’ UPR report was due in February of 2020, but has yet to be made publicly available).
Government accountability is a defining aim of human rights advocacy and organizing. In the current divisive moment, the need for collective action is essential. In the past months, the Human Rights Institute has been privileged to work closely with grassroots members of the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN) already engaged in UPR advocacy, the ACLU, and many other advocates to ensure that U.N. human rights mechanisms, and our own government, address the immediate human rights violations emanating from coronavirus, as well as their root causes. More on the collective advocacy by U.S. human rights organizations is detailed in this recent piece on Just Security: Human Rights Cannot be Put on Hold.
Monday, January 7, 2019
In an earlier blog post, we discussed the worries of human rights advocates, one of which was a concern that the US was no longer cooperating with international human rights reports. In a move that signals the US moving in that direction, the Guardian reported that the US has stopped responding to special rapporteur complaints of human rights violations within our borders.
Reportedly the US stopped responding to complaints last May. 13 inquiries have gone unanswered. The prior administration invited 16 Special Rapporteurs to visit the US. The current administration has invited none. The US responded badly to the June report filed by Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty criticizing the US failure to address poverty within its borders. Then UN Ambassador Nikki Haley fired back that the report was biased and time would be better spent investigating other countries. UN rapporteurs are unable to submit reports to the UN Human Rights Council without an official visit.
Without US cooperation concerns such as treatment of border migrants are unlikely to be investigated and reported by the UN. Unofficial visits can happen, of course, but resulting reports will not have official sanction of the UN Human Rights Council. Perhaps one remedy is for the Council to create another tier of reporting, one that would accommodate investigations that have not been invited by the country whose conditions are being investigated. Unofficial reporting of investigated conditions could be published, which would greatly assist local US advocates in dealing with municipalities to find remedies for inhumane conditions.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Guest blogger Erin Smith of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute posts today on a new resource on how U.N. reviews of U.S. human rights are relevant to state and local governments. Erin writes:
In the last three years, the United States has undergone reviews of compliance with the core international human rights treaties it has ratified—the Race Convention, the Torture Convention, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the protocols to the Children’s Rights Convention addressing child soldiers and child trafficking and child pornography—as well as the more recently established Universal Periodic Review (the UPR) at the Human Rights Council. These reviews culminated in an array of recommendations for improving human rights protections in the United States, addressing many issues squarely within the jurisdiction of state and local governments, including housing, employment, criminal justice, and the rights of children.
While many state and local governments actively work in these areas, including through the efforts of mayors, city councils, and human rights agencies, the human rights frame helps governments to more effectively and proactively identify and address discrimination and inequity, including policies or programs that may not be intentionally discriminatory but that nonetheless have a disparate impact.
To foster greater awareness of the human rights recommendations, and their relationship to the work of human rights agencies, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute published a new resource this week. This resource summarizes the recent human rights recommendations that are most pertinent to the work of state and local human rights agencies. It provides examples of some of the ways state and local agencies can use these recommendations in their work and can be read in conjunction with a 2011 toolkit on the UPR.
Federal compliance with human rights norms—as well as federal support for state and local governments to engage in human rights work—is key, as the recent U.N. reviews emphasize. And the federal government has been taking some action in line with recommendations from treaty bodies and the UPR, including in the areas of criminalization of homelessness, employment, and criminal justice.
The federal government is also working to include both civil society and state and local governments in its implementation efforts. Indeed, earlier this year, the State Department announced its initial steps toward more coordinated implementation of U.N. recommendations, announcing a new structure of working groups to address the recent recommendations:
- Civil Rights and Discrimination
- Criminal Justice
- Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Indigenous Peoples, and the Environment
- National Security
- Immigration, Migrants, Trafficking, Labor, and Children
- Treaties, International Mechanisms, and Domestic Implementation
Led by federal agencies and departments, the working groups are slated to meet with civil society at least once a year, and their role is reportedly to review the UPR and treaty body recommendations and to identify actions the U.S. is taking to respond, as well as further opportunities to do more. The first meeting, scheduled for April 27th, will focus on Treaties, International Mechanisms, and Domestic Implementation. The State Department, charged with leading the group, has invited civil society as well as state and local government representatives to participate in the meeting.
State and local governments could offer a vital contribution to these working group dialogues. As the U.S. has repeatedly acknowledged, state and local governments stand at the “frontlines” in the fight to ensure human rights are respected and protected.
Significant progress in strengthening the U.S. human rights record will require federal, state, and local governments to establish greater coordination and cooperation around human rights, through the UPR working groups and beyond. This new resource offers a starting point for these efforts.
Monday, January 25, 2016
For the past two years, human rights advocates across the United States were deeply engaged with reviews of the US human rights record in Geneva, Switzerland. Reviews by the CERD, the Human Rights Committee, the Committee Against Torture. and the U.S. UPR necessitated an immense amount of reporting, as well as trips to Geneva for those who were able to secure the resources and make the time. Yet, with the conclusion of the UPR last spring, it seemed that the windows of opportunity to raise human rights concerns with U.N. human rights experts, and U.S. officials were closing.
Yet, fortunately for human rights, that has not been the case. Instead, a flurry of activity has opened new opportunities to push for U.S. human rights accountability. And these opportunities are right here at home. The U.N. Working Group on Discrimination Against Women in Law and Practice concluded its US visit on December 11. The experts traveled to Oregon, Alabama, Washington, D.C. and Texas to participate in a range of meetings with civil society and government actors, and received a range of written submissions. The visit was a valuable opportunity for candid conversations on the status of women’s rights in the United States, which informed the Working Group’s preliminary findings. The visit also garnered media coverage in local Alabama media (here and here), and national outlets, Vox and Huffington Post.
This week, the human rights conversations continue. Indeed, the visit of the U.N. Working Group on People of African Descent is already underway. (The Working Group previously visited the U.S. in 2010).
The Group’s current ten-day tour of the United States, has an emphasis on the fulfillment of human rights at the city level. The trip kicked off with federal government meetings, but much time will be spent in the field. The Working Group will visit Baltimore, Maryland; Jackson, Mississippi; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City. In each location, these human rights experts will meet with mayors, attorneys general, and advocates of all stripes. This visit comes at key time, when issues of racial discrimination and inequality are front and nationally and locally, from the presidential debates (or, at least some of them) to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan .
The U.S. Human Rights Network Coordinating Center has played a key role in organizing the visit, working with local steering committees in each city, and collecting written submissions in advance of the visit. All of the written and oral interventions by civil society and government representatives will inform the Working Group’s preliminary findings, which should be releasedthis Friday, as well a more comprehensive report to the Human Rights Council later this year.
I welcome the visit to New York, my hometown, where the Working Group members will meet with elected officials, staff from the State Attorney General’s office, and importantly, spend half a day meeting with civil society to address a range of issues, including housing, education, and policing.
The Working Group’s meetings with local government officials offer an incredible opportunity to lift up human rights violations, discuss local policies that work, and propose context-specific recommendations for progress. How local officials respond is likely to vary across cities, and across office holders. But there is a 100% guarantee that the visit lays the groundwork for future advocacy, which local groups should seize upon and leverage in future advocacy.
Lest you need some taking points to inform how to frame human rights when talking to your local officials, or want to demonstrate that human rights are a valuable tool in local policymaking, you can look to this recent piece by Birmingham Mayor William Bell: Human Rights as a Vision for the Future of our Cities.
By continuing the human rights conversation in every available venue, we can build the foundation for change.
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
The U.S. government recently announced a consultation with civil society on November 12 in conjunction with its next periodic report under the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The U.S. ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography and the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict in 2002 and is preparing to submit its third report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This is an important, if often undervalued, opportunity to advance the rights and well-being of children in the United States.
I have been privileged to participate in both prior reviews of the United States under the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, including presenting testimony to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child during its session with NGOs in advance of its meeting with the government. Those experiences show that the reporting process offers three significant opportunities for human rights advocates. First, the Committee takes seriously the views of NGOs. Often the questions, or List of Issues, that the Committee poses to a government reflects gaps highlighted by NGOs in their alternative reports or in their testimony to the Committee. Second, many of the Concluding Observations and recommendations for the government come from NGO input. Finally, the post-review process offers a critical opportunity to use the recommendations in advocacy at home. In prior reviews under the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, ECPAT-USA has coordinated the lead alternative report (full disclosure: I serve as child rights advisor to ECPAT-USA). Following both prior reviews, NGOs organized briefing sessions in various cities in the United States. After 2008 review of the United States, several NGO representatives (including ECPAT-USA representatives and me) spoke at congressional briefings in the Senate and House of Representatives. Subsequent advocacy spurred the introduction of a bill that became the PROTECT Our Children Act of 2008. The law addressed some of the recommendations that emerged out of the reporting process (that process is described in more detail here). While that law isn’t perfect, it shows the potential that exists in the reporting process – the process can be successfully leveraged to advance human rights.
ECPAT-USA will again be coordinating the lead alternative report under the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children. And again, there is an opportunity to further advance law and policy aimed at securing children’s rights and well-being.
Simply put, the reporting process is a built-in monitoring and evaluation mechanism for human rights. While the substantive provisions of human rights law are essential and provide the basis for our work, the procedural benefits of human rights treaties – notably the reporting process – should not be overlooked.
Friday, May 22, 2015
by: Cynthia Soohoo, Tawakalitu Amusa and Chelsea Guffy
Editor's note: This post, by Prof. Soohoo and students Amusa and Guffy, is part one of an assessment of the United States regarding treatment of juveniles. Part two will address specific issues and grades assigned to the U.S.
Last spring, the U.N. Human Rights Committee (HRC) reviewed U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and called out multiple ways that U.S. treatment of youth in conflict with the law violates human rights standards. The HRC review began a year of steady international criticism.
- In September and December and U.N. Committees Against Racial Discrimination and Torture reiterated that the U.S. must reform its youth justice policies.
- In March, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, issued a report emphasizing the use of alternatives to detention to protect children from torture and ill-treatment. The report singled out the U.S. as the only country that imposes life without parole sentences on children.
- Last week, during the U.S.’s Universal Periodic Review (a peer review of the human rights record of each country in the U.N.), several countries emphasized that youth under 18 should not be in the adult criminal justice system and recommended that the U.S. end life without parole sentences for juveniles in all circumstances.
One year after the HRC review, CUNY Law School’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR) and its partners issued a Report Card to evaluate U.S. progress on youth justice issues. The Report Card finds that the U.S. continues to be in violation of its human rights obligations and has not taken satisfactory action to respond to the recommendations. For more in depth information about state reforms check out the Campaign for Youth Justice’s State Trends report.
This post first appeared in Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
Friday, May 15, 2015
Friday, March 27, 2015
The current issue of the Canadian Journal of Human Rights is a special volume focused on solitary confinement and human rights. Articles in the interdisciplinary journal include prisoner writing and philosophy as well as comparative analyses from Europe and the United States.
In the U.S., though its use has decreased since a peak in the 1990s, solitary confinement remains pervasive and concerning; an estimated 80,000 prisoners are currently detained in solitary confinement in the U.S. Indeed, even the mainstream media has picked up the issue, with no less than Vanity Fair publishing an essay on "the horrors of solitary confinement" in its January 2015 issue and the New York Times running Emily Bazelon's essay on "the shame of solitary confinement" the following month.
Activists are determined to bring an end to the practice, and have called for a complete ban on prolonged solitary confinement of more than 15 days. Lawsuits have been one vehicle. A suit in New York City led to favorable reforms. Pelican Bay prisoners mounting a pending suit in California recently won a motion to maintain past prisoners as members of the class, increasing the pressure on the state. Also in California, Statewide Coordinated Actions To End Solitary Confinement (SCATESC), began March 23, 2015, with actions in Arcata, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Cruz and in Philadelphia, PA. More locations will join on April 23rd and then 23rd of each month following.
The upcoming University Periodic Review of the U.S. by the Human Rights Council will provide another occasion for scrutiny of U.S. prison practices. A consortium of groups, led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, submitted a succinct document to the Council addressing solitary confinement. The final paragraph of the submission aptly sums up the current struggle for reform:
"The US warehouses tens of thousands of prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement, a practice
that is well-known cause to devastating psychological and physical effects. These harms are disproportionately visited upon people of color, politically-active prisoners, and those whose
gender or sexual identity is perceived to make them vulnerable to sexual assault. The US Government must take concrete steps to end the use of prolonged solitary confinement; to ensure
meaningful process prior to such confinement; to develop standards that prevent the
discriminatory use of solitary confinement; and to compile data on the use of solitary
confinement across the country."
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.
Friday, January 9, 2015
By Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
Back in October, I wrote about the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, or SGDs, which will replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)adopted in 2000 by the UN to alleviate global poverty. As I mentioned, expiration of the MDGs in 2015 has generated a healthy discussion within the human rights community about what a more universal and holistic set of goals to eradicate poverty might look like, with some human rights groups developing a human rights “litmus test” for the post-2015 SDGs. Last month saw an important and promising development on the road to a human rights-based approach to the SDGs.
On December 4, with the state-level negotiations over the final SDGs well underway (the final version of the SDGs is expected in September 2015), the UN Secretary General released a Synthesis Report, “The Road to Dignity by 2030,” which is intended to serve as a road map for the final negotiations. In it, the Secretary General makes clear that the SDGs are premised on the understanding of universality, thus applicable to both developing and developed countries, including the United States. In addition, unlike previous preliminary SDG documents, the Synthesis Report makes explicit reference throughout to human rights, clearly articulating the SDGs through a human rights framework and including human rights as a central component of the SDGs. The Report notes that “the agenda itself mirrors the broader international human rights framework.” Human rights concepts are implicit throughout the Synthesis Report, as well. The Report calls for the essential participation of civil society, transparency, and the accountability of all actors (including the private sector). The previous Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals Proposal, which was intended as a starting point for the state-level discussions on the SDGs, set forth 17 goals for sustainable development. The Synthesis Report seeks to maintain these 17 goals, but rearranges and incorporates them into six integrated “essential elements” for achieving the SDGs: dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet and people.
There is still a great deal to be worked out in the final document, including what form an accountability mechanism might take. The report calls for “strong, inclusive public mechanisms at all levels for reporting, monitoring progress, learning lessons, and ensuring mutual accountability,” and suggests accountability mechanisms at the national, regional and international level, as well as thematic reviews. The Universal Periodic Review might serve as a model for an SDG accountability mechanism, perhaps through the U.N. High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. In addition, or alternatively, as some human rights groups have suggested, existing human rights mechanisms might be strengthened to take into account the new global development goals. The Synthesis Report itself suggests that some review might take place through the existing human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty body reviews, with the participation of civil society.
Another important piece of the puzzle is how the final SDGs will be measured, including how they will articulate the relevant targets and indicators. The Synthesis Report indicates that at least some of this will take place at the national level.
Despite these unanswered questions, the Synthesis Report suggests a strong foundation for building human rights into the global development discussion, and offers promise for US human rights advocates who may seek to engage the SDGs in their advocacy on economic justice and poverty-related issues in the United States. Stay tuned for further developments.