Obama Administration Tells U.N. It’s Committed to Closing Gitmo, ‘Fixing’ Immigration

By Patrick Goodenough | August 24, 2010 | 4:38 AM EDT

The U.N. Human Rights Council in session in Geneva. (U.N. Photo by Jess Hoffman)

(CNSNews.com) – In the first ever U.N.-mandated self-assessment of America’s human rights record, the Obama administration has informed the world body that it remains committed to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and to “fixing our broken immigration system.”
A report delivered to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva on Friday and released by the State Department on Monday describes the “great strides” the U.S. has made towards ensuring equality of the law for all Americans. The report also acknowledges that work remains to be done.
The report – which now goes to the U.N. for review -- was drawn up following a series of consultative sessions between January and April involving federal agencies and civil society organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Human Rights First.
The report’s compilation is part of the “universal periodic review” (UPR) process in which the HRC probes every U.N. member-state’s human rights record once every four years.
The United States’ UPR is set for Nov. 5, when administration representatives will take part in a three-hour “interactive dialogue” with HRC members in Geneva, based on this report as well as others submitted by U.N. experts and civil society groups.
A “troika” of countries, chosen by lot, will then draw up a document of recommendations arising from the dialogue session, for the full HRC to “adopt” on Nov. 9.
The troika overseeing the U.S. UPR comprises France, Japan and Cameroon.
While the first two are free democracies, Cameroon is one of 13 countries on the 47-member HRC that are ranked “not free” by democracy watchdog Freedom House based on its political freedoms and civil liberties. (The other 12 “not free” members are Angola, Bahrain, China, Cuba, Gabon, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Mauritania, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.)
Cameroon is also one of 18 council members from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a bloc which has drawn fire for an agenda at the HRC characterized by a strong anti-Israel bias and attempts to outlaw religious “defamation.”

U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe speaks at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva (Photo: U.S. Mission, Geneva)

‘No comparison’
The presence and conduct of countries with widely-criticized human rights records was a key reason cited by the Bush administration for shunning the HRC, but President Obama made engagement with the body a priority. The U.S. was elected onto the council in May 2009.
“Some may say that by participating [in the UPR process] we acknowledge commonality with states that systematically abuse human rights,” the administration said in the report released on Monday. “We do not. There is no comparison between American democracy and repressive regimes.”
“For us, the primary value of this report is not as a diagnosis, but rather as a roadmap for our ongoing work within our democratic system to achieve lasting change,” it said.
The ACLU and another organization involved during the earlier consultations, Human Rights First, both welcomed release of the review on Monday – but with qualifications.
“It is time for the U.S. to match its human rights rhetoric with concrete domestic policies and actions and create a human rights culture and infrastructure that promote American values of equality and justice for all,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program.
The ACLU said the report neglected some areas, including “inhumane prison conditions” and “racial disparities in the death penalty system.”
Tad Stahnke of Human Rights First called the administration’s participation in the UPR process “an important step in rebuilding U.S. human rights leadership.”
But he added that the organization was disappointed that the report did not reflect more serious consideration of concerns raised and recommendations made by civil society groups during the consultations.
“The review featured an unprecedented level of consultation and engagement with civil society across our country, providing an opportunity to reflect on our human rights record,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Monday. “We hope it will serve as an example for other countries to follow.”
‘Quality, affordable health care’
Among issues of note dealt with in the report are the following:
-- The report says the government is committed to protecting the rights of members of Muslim, Arab-American and South Asian communities “and to combating discrimination and intolerance against them.” Steps taken include moves to combat racial and ethnic profiling, an Attorney General review of guidance relating to the use of race by law enforcement agencies and efforts to limit country-specific travel bans.
-- The report highlights Obama’s health care legislation as a major human rights advance, saying that it “makes great strides toward the goal that all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care.”
-- In its war against “al-Qaeda and its associated forces,” the U.S. is committed to upholding all applicable domestic and international laws. “We start from the premise that there are no law-free zones, and that everyone is entitled to protection under law.” The report lists three executive orders issued by Obama on taking office relating to detention, interrogation and transfer of detainees, and the intended shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay facility.
-- On immigration, the report says the U.S. seeks to build an effective and fair system of enforcement, and last year began a major overhaul of the immigration detention system. It notes ongoing court action contesting the controversial Arizona immigration law. “President Obama remains firmly committed to fixing our broken immigration system, because he recognizes that our ability to innovate, our ties to the world, and our economic prosperity depend on our capacity to welcome and assimilate immigrants.”
-- The report notes that the death penalty in 2009 was applied in 52 cases, about half the number of a decade earlier. Also noted is the Supreme Court ruling that offenders with intellectual disabilities or under 18 at the time of the offense may not be executed.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow