Friday, April 23, 2010

Is This an Exercise in Futility?

By William Fisher

Human Rights organizations are telling the United Nations that the United States is failing to hold corporations, including private government contractors, accountable for human rights abuses ranging from human trafficking to murder.

These and a plethora of other charges have been triggered by the UN’s formal process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for reviewing the human rights records of 192 UN member states by the UN Human Rights Council, scheduled for November, when the US human rights performance will be reviewed for the first time.

The UPR was established when the Human Rights Council was created in 2006 by the UN General Assembly. Numerous human rights groups have responded to the US State Department’s invitation to members of the US public to present their concerns about human rights in America.

Chip Pitts, president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, has attended the predecessor UN Commission on Human Rights and now the Council for more than two decades, as a delegate of the US government, Amnesty International, or other NGOs.

He told IPS, “The Universal Periodic Review process is a welcome step forward, in that it subjects all states to regular review of their human rights records, in addition to the work done by other mechanisms such as the treaty bodies and special rapporteurs as well as the Council’s own retained ability to make recommendations regarding acute situations of gross and systematic violations.”

But the problem, he said, is that “the process is far too slow, too limited in scope and authority, and still suffers from the inevitable politics that must be diminished if human rights implementation on the ground is to advance. The US government, in particular, should be the first to offer leadership and ensure authentic and full compliance with human rights law. But instead of setting this example, the United States all too often continues to seek refuge for itself and its allies in double standards.”

Jamil Dakwar, Director of the Human Rights Program of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), struck a more hopeful note, telling IPS, “We hope this process will help bring US policies in line with international human rights standards by shining a light on domestic human rights issues and holding state, local and federal government accountable to our human rights obligations.”

Specifically, the ACLU is urging President Obama to “issue a new executive order to revitalize the Inter-Agency Working Group on Human Rights, to coordinate the efforts of federal agencies and departments to respect and implement human rights obligations as U.S. domestic policy.”

He said other important steps are necessary including “the creation of a national human rights institution in the form of an expanded US Civil and Human Rights Commission, and effective coordination between federal bodies and existing state and local agencies charged with monitoring and enforcing civil and human rights laws.”

One coalition of groups includes The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Earth Rights International (ERI), the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) and the Western Shoshone Defense Project (WSDP).

These organizations cite numerous examples where private companies have been alleged to be responsible for serious human rights abuses, including human trafficking of Nepali laborers by Kellogg Brown & Root; nonconsensual medical experimentation by Pfizer; extrajudicial killings and torture committed by private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan; complicity in war crimes by Chiquita; and violations of the indigenous peoples’ rights to health, land, and culture by private mining companies in Nevada.

The Federation of American Scientists asked the State Department to turn its attention to those cases where a resolution of alleged human rights violations has been barred by the government's use of the state secrets privilege.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Government Secrecy Project of the American Federal of Scientists, told IPS, "There are innocent individuals who have been swept up in US Government counterterrorism operations, wrongly detained, 'rendered' surreptitiously to foreign countries, subjected to extreme physical and mental stress, or otherwise wronged."

He added, "In some cases, like those of persons such as Maher Arar and Khaled el-Masri, efforts to seek legal remedies have been blocked by the Government's invocation of the state secrets privilege. As a result, the alleged abuses committed in such cases remain unresolved, and there is no way for the affected individuals to be made whole."

"If the judicial process in such cases is foreclosed by the state secrets privilege, then an alternate procedure should be created to rectify the wrongs that may have been committed," he suggested.

Another prominent human rights advocacy group, Human Rights First (HRF), focused its report on refugee protection and immigration detention, counter-terrorism policies, and hate crimes and discrimination.

The group said, “Despite its leadership in protecting victims of persecution around the world, the US has fallen short on its commitment to treat refugees who seek asylum in the United States in accordance with the1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

It said, “The US should change its laws and regulations to provide asylum seekers who are detained on arrival with prompt immigration court custody hearings, eliminate the one-year asylum filing deadline, and ensure refugees are not improperly excluded from protection or returned to persecution after interdiction at sea.”

Regarding counterterrorism policies, the group notes that the US continues to hold more than 800 detainees in military facilities at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan without charge or trial.

“Due to the government’s overly broad definition of armed conflict and belligerency, many of these detainees are being held in violation of international law. Some are slated for trial in military commissions which do not comport with international due process standards. The government has also failed to provide adequate information about detainees reportedly abused in a “black site” in Afghanistan, the group said.

“Bias-motivated violence continues to be a serious problem in the US,” the report says. “Official response is not uniform across the country, and vulnerable groups continue to be subjected to violent acts motivated by racism, bigotry and intolerance.”