Nov 6 2010
The United Nations Human Rights Council, a conclave of 47 nations that includes such notorious human rights violators as China, Cuba, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia, met in Geneva on Friday, to question the United States about its human rights failings.
FOX NEWS It heard, among other things, that the U.S. discriminates against Muslims, that its police are barbaric and that it has been holding political prisoners behind bars for years.
Russia urged the U.S. to abolish the death penalty. Cuba and Iran called on Washington to close Guantanamo prison and investigate alleged torture by its troops abroad. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, told the U.S. it must better promote religious tolerance. Mexico complained that racial profiling had become a common practice in some U.S. states.
Some of these allegations, and many more, come from Americans themselves — especially from a stridently critical network of U.S. organizations whose input dominates the U.N. digest of submissions from “civil society” that are part of the council’s background reading.
For the first time ever, the U.S. came under the Human Rights Council’s microscope as part of the its centerpiece activity, the “Universal Periodic Review,” a rotating examination of the human rights failings and strong points of every country in the world, from North Korea to Norway, by the council’s members.
For two hours, council members got to say whatever they wish, good and ill, about the country that has done the most in the past 40 years to establish human rights as a global theme.
The anticipation was that that ill-wishers were planning to pack the line to the speaker’s podium, with complaints from some Western human rights organizations that Cuba, Venezuela and Iran were seeking to “hijack” the microphone and stack the speaker’s list with U.S. critics. And it appears to some extent they did.
But what really is under review is the gamble by the Obama administration to join the council in the first place, rather than shun it in disdain, as the Bush administration did, along with its predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, because of its roster of despotic members and unbridled antagonism toward Israel.
The Universal Periodic Review, in which all countries great and small submit to human rights commentary by their peers, is supposed to help install the principle of observing human rights in the farthest reaches of the international community.
But it is also showing signs of becoming, in the U.S. case, a one-sided fiasco, along the lines of such previous toxic human rights extravaganzas as the U.N.’s 2001 “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” and its 2006 follow-up, which turned into orgies of anti-Israeli posturing and helped to lead to the previous U.N. Human Rights Commission crackup.
So who is supposed to benefit from the U.S. submission to the UPR process?
According to Jim Kelly, director of international affairs for the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies and founder of a blog called Global Governance Watch, the main beneficiaries are likely to be the interest groups that take part in the exercise. “The fact is, they are demanding that the U.S. comply with rights that are already addressed by our own democratic system and laws,” he argues. “They are simply trying to get us to adopt U.N. standards instead of our own. It’s not as if by our participating in the human rights process Cuba is going to clean up its act.”
But according to the U.S. State Department, which led a delegation of high-level American diplomats and government officials to Geneva, the Periodic Review is a major opportunity for Washington to lead the rest of the world by example.
“Our taking the process seriously contributes to the universality” of the human rights process, one State Department official told Fox News. “It’s an important opportunity for us to showcase our willingness to expose ourselves in a transparent way” to human rights criticism.
“For us, upholding the process is very important.”
The same official, however, declared that the “most important” part of the process is “the dialogue with our own citizens.”
That was a reference to the important—and often harshly critical—role being played in the U.S. Universal Periodical Review by American human rights interest groups, or Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), also known in U.N. parlance as “stakeholders.”
The Obama administration has gone to elaborate lengths to consult with such groups in advance of the Geneva meeting. The State Department, has led delegations from a variety of government departments (including Labor, Homeland Security, Education and Justice) to consult with such groups in Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Harlem, and Albuquerque, according to an official at State.
Those NGOs will also get a chance to “engage” with the U.S. delegation in Geneva at what the State Department calls a “first ever town hall meeting,” after the Human Rights Council, composed of national governments, makes its views known. “Many countries stack the room with NGOs that are government controlled,” the State Department official told Fox News, adding that the U.S. obviously doesn’t.
“We hope that the Periodic Review process will be one that sheds new light on issues,” the official added, including “what we learn from our own NGOs, which we take seriously.”
How seriously the NGOs should be taken is indeed, an important part of the question surrounding the human rights tableau in Geneva. For one thing, 103 submissions by those NGOS about U.S. human rights practices—very broadly defined—are already included in the official documentation of the Universal Periodic Review itself.
In that sense, their contents provide a kind of rough road map to the rhetoric that the U.S. may face in the days—and even years—ahead, because the Universal Periodic Review process will be repeated indefinitely into the future, and is supposed to analyze progress from session to session.
According to a dense summary of the submissions circulated by the U.N. in advance of Friday’s meeting, the NGOs offering briefs for this Review run a familiar gamut from the American Bar Association and British-based Amnesty International to such specialized groups as the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.
They also include an array of submissions from college legal faculties and their advocacy offshoots; environmental coalitions; and a smattering of other non-American organizations such as the Federation of Cuban Women, based in the Castro dictatorship. (The women’s group objects on human rights grounds to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.)
Even relatively conservative and centrist organizations are represented in submissions by the Heritage Foundation, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, and the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty.
Yet despite their apparent diversity, many of the submissions, as summarized briefly in the U.N. document, point to a number of common themes:
–The U.S. needs to sign, ratify and implement a wide number of United Nations-sponsored human rights conventions, whatever reservations various U.S. governments or courts have had to them;
— All these treaties and conventions should be “self-executing,” meaning that no subsequent U.S. government action should be required for them to go into effect—regardless of the U.S. constitutional separation of powers, and the separation of powers between federal and state governments;
–the U.S. should have national human rights institutions to coordinate and enforce human rights compliance;
–racial, economic and social disparities are still endemic in the U.S. despite its own civil rights laws, and need to be eliminated to meet “international standards” embodied in U.N. treaties. Amnesty International, for example, charges that “racial disparities continue to exist at every stage [U.S.] in the criminal justice system,” and calls for laws to bar “racial profiling in law enforcement.” READ MORE