Friday 19 November 2010

US given 228 recommendations to improve human rights

GENEVA – Federal officials participating in the first ever international review of the U.S. human rights record acknowledged that the country still faces challenges in fulfilling its obligations, but expressed overall pride in what they perceived as America’s human rights accomplishments.

“At a time when the U.S. has its first African-American president and attorney general, a female secretary of State, our first Hispanic Supreme Court justice and an Arab-American and two Asian-American cabinet members, we see visible progress in our national quest for equality and fair treatment,” Harold Hongju Koh, State Department legal adviser, told the U.N. Human Rights Council.

But with 228 recommendations from 56 countries urging the U.S. to improve human rights for Native Americans, end the death penalty, eliminate racial disparities, stop torture, ratify key international treaties and more, the U.S. government was given a clear message that it has much work to do to improve the status of human rights in the country.

The council’s first review of the U.S. rights record took place Nov. 5 as part of the Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 to review human rights records of all 192 U.N. member states every four years.

The U.S. joined the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2009, ending a boycott by former President George W. Bush, who distained the organization and whose former White House counsel called the Geneva Conventions “quaint” and “obsolete.”

The 30-member U.S. delegation had an hour to present its report and respond to questions. Eighty-five states had signed up to speak, but there was time for only 56. The results of the questions and recommendations made to the U.S. and their response was compiled in a draft “outcome document” that was adopted by the council Nov. 8.

The U.S. will review the recommendations and give a formal response at the March 2011 session of the Human Rights Council.

Both states and civil society organizations addressed a substantial number of issues and recommendations involving the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

The endorsement of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its full implementation was recommended by several countries, including Iran, Bolivia, Libya, Finland, Ghana, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Citing a human rights report and recommendations from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Cyprus recommended that the U.S. recognize the rights of Native Americans to participate in decisions affecting them and consult in good faith before adopting and implementing any activities on their lands. Cyprus asked for a follow up on measures taken to address the CERD recommendations.

The International Indian Treaty Council, which has coordinated civil society participation in the UPR process and attended the council review, noted that Cyprus also raised the issue of the government’s assumed power over indigenous peoples in North America.

“In an apparent reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plenary Powers Doctrine established in 1836 and still the law in the United States, Cyprus called upon the United States to afford indigenous peoples in the United States equality before the law,” IITC Executive director Andrea Carmen said.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee in 2006 also recommended that the “U.S. should review this policy. … as regards the extinguishment of aboriginal rights on the basis of the plenary power of Congress.”

The Holy See, which represents the Vatican without a vote in the U.N., recommended that the U.S. suspend its “Operation Streamline” – a Bush-era “zero tolerance” border enforcement program that criminalizes every undocumented person who crosses the border.

Other indigenous issues raised included the destruction and desecration of and denial of access to sacred sites and the unilateral termination and abrogation of 400 treaties.

Responding to the many comments and recommendations to improve indigenous rights, Koh said, “We acknowledge the many challenges faced by Native Americans – poverty, unemployment, health care gaps, violent crime and discrimination – but note the many laws and policies we have put in place to address health care reform, to improve criminal justice, and empower the tribes and their members to deal with those challenges.” He noted that the government is reviewing its position on the Declaration in response to calls from tribes and individuals.

Other issues raised included racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims, blacks and Hispanics, anti-immigrant legislation such as Arizona’s new immigration law; police violence against minorities; the lack of a national institution to promote observance of international human rights; and the continuing death penalty which is prohibited by most U.N. member states.

A key recommendation was ratification of international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The United States is one of only six countries in the world to have signed but not ratified the Covenant and one of seven yet to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It also stands virtually alone in not having ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Human rights activists who attended the review were disappointed in the government’s response.

“My personal feelings after close to 20 years at the U.N. trying to hold the U.S. accountable were not really new at this UPR. Sadly, the examination was predictable, in that the U.S. countered with pretty much self-congratulatory statements. It is clear that the U.S., or at least this delegation, was not conscious of the obligatory nature of international human rights, particularly if the source of that obligation is the treaties and conventions it has signed and ratified,” said IITC General Counsel Alberto Saldamando.

But there is some hope for improvement.

“I think we do have the opportunity to exchange and educate, as this administration appears more willing to talk. It is a bit more hopeful in this regard than previous administrations. That it will ultimately listen is another matter, but there is some hope.”

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