In a first, US sends human rights report to United Nations for review
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For the first time, the United States has submitted a report on its human rights record for evaluation by the United Nations. The report includes some reflection on where the country can do better – but also left some things out. Some analysts say the fact that the U.S. submitted the report at all is an indication that the country’s relationship with the U.N. is changing. Tanya Snyder reports.
Since 2006, every country in the United Nations is required to submit a report on its human rights conditions every four years. This year, for the first time, it’s the United States’ turn.
The 29-page report offers a wide-ranging examination of the state of human rights in the U.S. It examines not just civil and political rights outlined in the Constitution, like voting rights and due process, but also evaluates economic and social rights, which the U.S. doesn’t always factor in to conversations about human rights. Jennifer Turner of the ACLU commended officials for including areas like education, housing and health care.
JENNIFER TURNER: Especially now given the economic situation in this country, these are very serious issues our country is facing right now, and to view them as human rights issues is certainly a major step forward.
The Obama Administration used the report, in part, to trumpet its achievements on everything from health care legislation to the stimulus to a program aimed at stopping prison rape. It acknowledged work yet to be done – like closing Guantánamo and fixing the broken immigration system. Turner says it still left out a few key things:
TURNER: For instance, the report mentions the importance of the human rights of people who are incarcerated, but didn’t talk about any of the issues plaguing our prison system. The section of the report that talked about the death penalty just said, it’s important that we improve the death penalty but didn’t mention any of the problems like racial disparities, or barriers people face to challenge unfair convictions.
She also would have liked to see more attention given to problems with the detention of immigrants, deaths at the border, and the use of military commissions at Guantánamo. Some advocates also expressed disappointment that reproductive rights were not included in the report.
The State Department held consultations all over the country to hear from people about their human rights concerns. Human Rights First organized two of those consultations. Tad Stahnke is the group’s policy director.
TED STAHNKE: They had all these consultations, groups pointed out a variety of areas where U.S. human rights practices can be improved, to bring it more into line with international commitments, and the State Department is saying those issues are under discussion internally, and we’re very interested in seeing that discussion be a robust one, and one that actually produces some real policy considerations by the administration.
Soon after becoming President, Obama announced that the U.S. would try to get its seat back on the U.N. Human Rights Council, and in May of 2009, it was elected. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The decision that was made by the Obama Administration was largely to distinguish Obama’s approach to the UN from that of Bush, who had really tried to undermine and discredit the UN across the board.
Bennis says she’s not even sure the Bush Administration would have been willing to let the UN judge its human rights record, despite the requirement. She says conservatives have a history of rejecting the power of the U.N. over the United States.
BENNIS: The claim that the U.S. is somehow not accountable to the same kind of international law as everyone else, that the U.S. should not be accountable to the United Nations, that the U.N. Charter which defines, for example, the role of the U.N. Security Council in determining whether a military attack is legal or not, should not apply to the United States, that somehow we are bigger than that, better than that, different than that – and the U.N. be damned.
In November, the U.S. will formally present its report to the Council and answer questions, and in March, they’ll discuss recommendations for improvement. Three countries are chosen to review each human rights report presented. The countries that will evaluate this one are France, Japan, and Cameroon.
Tanya Snyder, FSRN, Washington