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U.S. subjects its human rights record to review by U.N. council

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 10:08 PM

UNITED NATIONS - The United States submitted Friday at the United Nations to unprecedented public scrutiny of its human rights record, drawing censure from friends and rivals for its policies on detention and the death penalty but also praise from allies for its candor and willingness to accept constructive criticism.

A delegation of top officials, led by Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer, gave diplomats at the U.N. Human Rights Council a detailed account of U.S. human rights shortcomings and the Obama administration's efforts to redress them. It marked the first time the United States has subjected its rights record to examination before the Geneva-based council as part of a procedure that requires all states to allow their counterparts to grade their conduct.

Several delegations camped out overnight to be first in line to criticize Washington, with the initial few speakers including Cuba, Iran and Venezuela.

The administration has engaged in an intensive effort, including holding town hall meetings with Muslims, Native Americans, African Americans and other minority groups, to assess the extent of domestic rights violations. In August, it gave the U.N. rights council a 22-page report documenting U.S. abuses, including practices by federal and local police and corrections and immigration officials, and defending President Obama's counterterrorism policies. Friday's meeting provided the first opportunity for states to comment on the report.

"Our progress has not been linear, but in the story of the United States, the arc of history has bent toward justice," said Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. "As our report acknowledges, though we are proud of our achievements, we are not satisfied with the status quo."

U.S. officials acknowledged the country's long history of rights abuses. They noted that the administration's top advisers, who include an American Jew, an African American and an Asian American, could not have risen so high in the U.S. government in the past. "For the United States, our early years witnessed profound gaps between our ideals and practice, including slavery, the treatment of Native Americans and limited franchise," Brimmer said. "Yet our own history has been one of progress, built on a strong foundation of fundamental freedoms of speech, association and religion, as foundation for building a 'more perfect Union.' "Republican administrations have previously subjected their policies on immigration, detention treatment and other rights issues to scrutiny by the United Nations and other international bodies. But the George W. Bush administration had refused to join the Human Rights Council, saying membership would lend legitimacy to a body that included many governments with appalling rights records. Obama reversed course, arguing that it would be better to improve the body from within than lecturing from the outside.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban American who is likely to become chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the rights council "is dominated by rogue regimes, including Cuba, which serves as vice-chair. So long as the inmates are allowed to run the asylum, the Human Rights Council will continue to stand in the way of justice, not promote it."

Bush's former U.N. envoy, John Bolton, who led opposition to the council, said Friday's action simply underscored the White House's "naivete." "For the Obama administration, this is an exercise in self-flagellation, which they seem to enjoy," Bolton said. "But it doesn't prompt equivalent candor from the real rights abusers."

The United States' most vociferous critics - Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea and Venezuela - opened the session with a string of highly critical accounts of U.S. policies, denouncing detention policies from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay and characterizing the embargo on Cuba as an act of genocide.Cuba and Nicaragua also called for the release of five Cuban intelligence officials held by U.S. authorities on espionage charges and for the prosecution of Luis Posada Carriles, the alleged mastermind of the 1976 terrorist bombing of a Cuban airliner.

"The United States of America, since its very origin, has used force indiscriminately as the central pillar of its policy of conquest and expansionism, causing death and destruction," said Nicaragua's envoy, Carlos Robelo Raffone. "We would like to forget the past . . . but unfortunately, the United States of America, which pretends to be the guardian of human rights in the world, questioning other countries, has been and continues to be the one which most systematically violates human rights."

The tone struck by succeeding speakers was more restrained. But even Washington's closest friends found fault with some of its policies. Many urged the United States to suspend the death penalty, with the ultimate goal of abolishing the practice, and to ratify international treaties aimed at protecting the rights of women and children.

China and Russia, two major powers with poor rights records but important relations with the United States, acknowledged U.S. advances in human rights, citing efforts to expand health care. But China, which has brutally repressed its own ethnic minorities, criticized U.S. law enforcement officials for using "excessive force against racial minorities."

Germany's envoy scolded some of America's most strident critics. "We have noted with interest that some of the states which are on the first places of today's speakers list had spared no effort to be the first to speak on the U.S.," said Germany's delegate, Konrad Scharinger. "We would hope that those states will show the same level of commitment when it comes to improving their human rights record at home."

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