US submits to UN human rights review

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:47 PM

GENEVA -- The United States is submitting its human rights record to the scrutiny of other nations - both allies and adversaries - for the first time, as the Obama administration opens itself up to a committee shunned by his predecessor.

The three-hour U.N. review Friday will have more than a few uncomfortable moments for the high-level U.S. delegation, which is sure to face questions over the use of torture in the war on terror, not dismantling the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the death penalty, immigration policy, the treatment of racial minorities and questions of religious freedom.

The 30-strong delegation, headed by three top State Department officials and including representatives from many departments, including Justice, Defense and Homeland Security, arrives in Geneva with a 20-page report compiled with the input of civic and social organizations.

For most observers, the high level of U.S. engagement alone is a milestone. The Bush administration shunned the U.N. Human Rights Council, which runs the so-called Universal Public Reviews, because of the participation of repressive states and its constant criticism of Israel.

Some of the most vocal critics of the review process have come from the U.S. Congress, and a landslide by the frequently U.N.-skeptical Republicans in Tuesday's election could leave the country even less receptive.

Human rights organizations say the ultimate test will be in the U.S. response to peer recommendations from any of the United Nations 192 members, including possibly Iran, which will be made next week.

Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU human rights program, said it is important that the United States matches its rhetoric with concrete domestic policies and actions.

"We believe that Obama administration should take specific actions through executive order and legislation that assure domestic human rights commitments, including UPR recommendations, are monitored and enforced within the U.S.," Dakwar said.

Some activists say Washington's report glosses over some of the toughest human rights challenges facing the United States, including the treatment of immigrants, the death penalty and officials responsible for the use of torture as a tool in the war against terror.

"We were dissatisfied because we concluded half of the report was basically fluff. It had very little substance," said Ajamu Baraka, director of the US Human Rights Network, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that prepared its own human rights reports in parallel. "It devoted too much space to a rendering of U.S. history as it relates to human rights that we thought was primarily myth."

Beyond front-page issues like torture and immigration, Baraka also wants to see the United States make more progress in what are seen as softer economic, social and cultural human rights, areas that came into sharp focus by the economic collapse that has penalized mostly less powerful members of society.

The 47-member council replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission in 2006, and the Obama administration joined last year - although as a U.N. member would have been required to participate in the peer review in any case. The council has no enforcement powers, but is supposed to act as the world's moral conscience on human rights.

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