United Nations to Sit in Judgment of U.S. Human Rights Record

By Patrick Goodenough | May 8, 2015 | 4:25 AM EDT

(CNSNews.com) – From police shootings of African-Americans to the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the United States’ human rights record will be in the spotlight at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday.

A 26-strong multi-agency U.S. delegation will field questions from other members of the Geneva-based council, including communist Cuba, which has submitted queries covering torture, labor rights and poverty.

“How is the U.S. commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights compatible with the fact no prosecutions have been announced of those responsible for carrying out torture in the context of the so-called war against terrorism?” reads one of the questions Cuba prepared in advance.

A number of other countries will be asking the U.S. team to explain policy on issues including the death penalty, Guantanamo Bay, ratification of the International Criminal Court’s founding statute, and the Feinstein report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation and detention programs.

Spain’s prepared questions relate to the controversies over police shootings in U.S. cities.

“Is the government preparing any education program for the police to prevent discrimination and violence against the Afro-American citizens by the public order forces?” it asks. “Are the president and the Congress going to appoint a special commission to investigate police actions against minorities, including Afro-American citizens?”

The exercise in Geneva is known as the universal periodic review (UPR), an examination supervised by the HRC which every U.N. member-state is expected to undergo every four years.

It involves a three-hour “interactive dialogue” among delegates, based on three reports – one prepared by the government under review, one by U.N. agencies, and one that summarizes submissions from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

After the discussion a “troika” of randomly-selected countries compiles a document containing recommendations arising from the proceedings. The full HRC then “adopts” that document, and the country under review is expected either to accept or “note” each recommendation.

The troika selected for the UPR of the U.S. comprises Saudi Arabia – a country which the democracy watchdog Freedom House designates as “not free” – the Netherlands and Botswana.

The UPR was touted as one of the most important mechanisms designed for the HRC when the council was established in 2006 to replace its discredited predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

In practice, it has often disappointed human rights advocates. Regimes with poor rights records typically express support and solidarity for each other, while fending off criticism from democracies.

And when democracies are under review, rights-abusing regimes have used the opportunity as payback for criticism they frequently receive from the West.

When the U.S. had its first UPR, in 2010-11, critics of U.S. policies stacked the top of the speakers’ list, with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran in the top three positions. Russia, Nicaragua, North Korea, China and Libya were also high up the list.

Among recommendations arising out of that first UPR, Libya’s Gaddafi regime advised the U.S. to act against those responsible for gross violations of human rights in American prisons; Iran said Washington should send U.S. “war criminals” to the ICC for trial; and North Korea urged the U.S. to ban torture and punish law enforcement officials who use excessive force.

Venezuela said the U.S. must tackle climate change; Algeria said the U.S. must examine itself in the annual State Department report on human rights around the world; and Ecuador said the U.S. should repeal “discriminatory and racial laws” such as Arizona’s controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070.

In the end the U.S. accepted 171 recommendations out of a total of 242 from other member-states.

The delegation traveling to Geneva for Monday’s session comprises 25 officials from the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, along with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow