U.S. issues upbeat report on human rights at home

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010; A2

The U.S. government, which has long scrutinized other countries' human rights records, has turned its gaze inward - evaluating its own performance in a largely upbeat report to the United Nations.

The review, submitted last month, is the first by the United States under a new system in which the U.N. Human Rights Council will analyze the record of every country in the world body.

Representatives of U.S.-based human rights groups welcomed the report, but some said it glossed over problems such as the detention of prisoners at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Others, however, said the U.S. review went too far in identifying some practices as abusive. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) said it was "downright offensive" that her state's new immigration law was mentioned in a report to a council "whose members include such renowned human rights 'champions' as Cuba and Libya."

The George W. Bush administration had shunned the U.N. council because of the membership of repressive regimes. The Obama administration has reversed course, arguing that it is better to work from within to strengthen the U.N. human rights system.

But U.S. human rights observance would have been scrutinized by the U.N. whether or not Washington was a member of the council. The body will consider the U.S. record at a hearing in November that will take into account the American report as well as comments from U.N. bodies, countries and nongovernmental groups. The process, known as the Universal Periodic Review, is done for each nation.

Human rights groups say the Obama administration's report will enhance its standing.

"It has legitimized and strengthened our ability to evaluate the human rights of other countries, because we take seriously what that means at home," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Some, however, argued that the report should have gone further. They said it did not devote attention to human rights abuses in U.S. prisons or immigration detention centers, or acknowledge that the Obama administration lacks a clear plan for closing Guantanamo.

"We are disappointed that it does not reflect more serious consideration of the specific concerns and recommendations made by civil society groups during the consultation process," said Ted Stahnke of Human Rights First.

The U.S. report notes numerous steps taken by the Obama administration, from overhauling health care to reducing sentencing disparities for possession of powder and crack cocaine.

The report dedicates several paragraphs to post-9/11 security measures, noting Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo and ban the use of waterboarding to get information from inmates.

The mention of Arizona's immigration law is brief - a paragraph noting that the measure "has generated significant attention and debate" and is facing a court challenge.

Brewer wrote last week to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressing "indignation" about the inclusion of the law, which expands police power to question suspected illegal immigrants.

"The idea of our own American government submitting the duly enacted laws of a state . . . to 'review' by the United Nations is internationalism run amok," Brewer wrote.

Human rights activists pointed out that the U.S. government already files lengthy reports on how it is meeting its obligations under U.N. treaties on racial discrimination, civil rights and others.

Any recommendations issued at the November session on the U.S. human rights situation will be nonbinding.

Brett Schaefer and Steven Groves of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in an essay that the U.S. report "generally defends America's strong record in the preservation of human rights."

But they predicted that the government would be grilled in November by countries resentful of being criticized in the annual State Department review of human rights around the world.

"While the [U.N. process] offers an unprecedented opportunity to hold the human rights practices of every country open for public examination and criticism, it has proven to be a flawed process hijacked by countries seeking to shield themselves from criticism," they wrote. They urged the U.S. government to quit the council.

The 47-nation body was set up in March 2006 to replace the 60-year-old Human Rights Commission, which lost credibility after countries with dismal human rights records, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, managed to block criticism of their practices.

Although the report is generally positive, it describes some U.S. shortcomings.

The report notes differences in levels of education, employment and homeownership among American racial and ethnic groups.

"We are not satisfied with a situation where the unemployment rate for African-Americans is 15.8 percent, for Hispanics 12.4 percent, and for whites 8.8 percent, as it was in February 2010," it says.

Staff writer Colum Lynch contributed to this report.

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