Friday, August 27, 2010

America’s Self-Assessment

By William Fisher

In the first ever U.N.-mandated self-assessment of America’s human rights record, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and to “fixing our broken immigration system.”

But the report also acknowledges the need for improvement in several key areas, including racial justice, women's rights, LGBT rights and discrimination against Muslims and Americans of South Asian and Arab descent.

And civil liberties advocate groups say the report neglects to address other key areas where the U.S. has failed to meet its human rights obligations, including felon disfranchisement, inhumane prison conditions, racial disparities in the death penalty system and deaths and abuse in immigration detention.

These groups also note that the report defends the use of military commissions to try terrorism suspects. They say military commissions pose significant human and civil rights violations.

The report, delivered to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva and released by the U.S. State Department, describes the “great strides” the U.S. has made toward ensuring equality of the law for all Americans. The report also acknowledges that work remains to be done.

The report was prepared 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.

Its 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 France and Japan 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.”

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.

Jamil Dakwar, head of the ACLU’s civil rights program, told IPS, “While we welcome the Obama administration’s report and participation in this process and willingness to improve in certain areas, it is disappointing that the report neglected to address other significant problems that were raised in the consultations with civil society. In order to lead by example on human rights, the United States must commit to fixing all domestic human rights abuses – not just the ones that are most

He added, “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.”

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.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley responded: “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. “We hope it will serve as an example for other countries to follow.”

The report highlighted extensive protections in U.S. law and practice for human rights as well as several important steps recently taken to improve human rights and U.S. adherence to international standards including:

Issuance of Executive Order 13491 on Ensuring Lawful Interrogation which ended the use of secret cruel interrogation techniques and closed secret CIA prisons; continued commitment to close Guantánamo Bay and to the premise that there are no "law-free zones;" revised parole guidelines for individuals in expedited deportation proceedings found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture; and enactment of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 bolstering the U.S. government's ability to prosecute hate crimes, including those motivated by animus based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

The UNHRC will review the U.S. report in November.

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