United States’ First International Human Rights Test

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dr. Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh
Executive Editor of Iran Review

Active ImageThe United States submitted its national report on the human rights in that country to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on August 20, 2010. Perhaps, this is the first time in the history of the United States that Washington has submitted a voluntary support on its human rights weaknesses and strengths to an international human rights body. This report is part of the country’s universal periodic review (UPR) which has been accepted by the US after the country’s accession to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

The mechanism of UPR aims to make up for the past prejudiced focus of human rights supervisory mechanisms on just a few countries. It has been adopted as a new means to monitor human rights situation in the world by the Human Rights Council which is nothing similar to the old system of resolutions which was used by its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. Therefore, the General Assembly Resolution 60/251 which led to the establishment of the Human Rights Council has noted that “…the review shall be a cooperative mechanism, based on an interactive dialogue, with the full involvement of the country concerned and with consideration given to its capacity-building needs; such a mechanism shall complement and not duplicate the work of treaty bodies”.

Thus, over a four-year period, all 192 member states of the United Nations have to report on the human rights situation in their countries to the Council and defend their reports. The United States’ report is to be discussed on the floor of the Council on November 5, 2010. Iran’s report has already been considered in February and June 2010 and the final report on the human rights situation in Iran has been adopted.

The Universal Periodic Review consists of simultaneous consideration of three reports. The first report, or the country report, is prepared by the country in question. Most such reports usually focus on the human rights advances in that country. The second report contains views, criticisms, and recommendations offered by all UN bodies, including affiliated agencies, programs and institutions, on the human rights situation in the country in question, which is usually prepared by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The third report is also prepared by the High Commissioner and covers viewpoints, criticisms and recommendations put forth by nongovernmental organizations as well as civil society institutions which are also known as stakeholders. When the day comes to consider a country report, member states give their final opinions on the human rights situation in the country in question after going through the contents of the abovementioned reports and also in line with their political relations with that country. Thus, they may either condemn or commend the country in question. After the country in question responds to criticism, a series of recommendations are offered to it which are not binding for that state and it can either accept or reject them or even postpone consideration to a later time. A few months later, those recommendations along with viewpoints of the country in question will be assessed by the Human Rights Council and the outcome report will be adopted. That report will be accepted as final document on the human rights situation in the country in question and will be used to determine its compliance with human rights obligations and to depict the country’s human rights profile for the next four years to come.

The United States along with the Zionist regime, Marshal Islands and Palau were four countries which voted against establishment of the Council. The United States did not accede to the Council under President George Bush until 2009 on ground that membership conditions had not been hard enough and even countries violating human rights had been accepted as members and they should not be allowed to assess the human rights situation in the United States. However, after Obama’s election and his different viewpoints on the necessity of interaction with international bodies, the US has changed its negative attitude toward the Human Rights Council and become a member in 2009. The membership will continue until 2012.

The US country report has been prepared in 29 pages and its structure is somehow different from country reports already submitted by other states. The report is marked with frequent references to Obama’s words and ideas (20 times on the whole)1 and references to history and evolution of the existing human rights spirit which governs the United States; focuses on the country’s weaknesses with regard to minorities’ rights, racism, xenophobia, and maltreatment of immigrants and tries to explain the causes; and endeavors to present the United States as a superpower promoting true principles of human rights throughout the world. In fact, the US government seems to have predicted a spat of criticism against its human rights situation and has tried to highlight just a few weaknesses which it claims are being rectified. In fact, the US State Department has tried to reduce pressures and criticism against the country, at least for the time being, by claiming that “we already know about our weaknesses and are doing our best to remedy them.”

During the past few weeks, the report has led to much controversy in the United States. Some human rights activists and nongovernmental organizations have appreciated the repot and while highlighting human rights deficiencies in the United States have expressed hope that the report, which is Washington’s answer to global concerns, would pave the way for final improvement of human rights in that country. On the contrary, many conservative organizations, institutions and political figures have scoffed at the report calling it a cause of shame for every US citizen. Pointing to the federal government’s approach to a domestic issue like Arizona State’s immigration law, they have noted that it is not wise to take domestic disputes to international bodies and maintain that such an image of human rights in the US will hurt its international standing. Some of them have even gone as far as alleging that the United Nations is not qualified to see into the human rights situation in the United States and only American institutions are qualified to do that!

Active ImageIt is quite easy to imagine that one hour before the beginning of HRC’s November 5 meeting, there will be no empty seats at the Council. Although two more reports on the situation of human rights in the United States (by UN and civil society institutions) have not been published yet, since the biggest call for submission of human rights complaints against the US government has been sent out by the American NGOs, it is not difficult to imagine that in which direction NGO’s viewpoints are going to lead the Higher Commissioner’s report. The fact that the US government has, thus far, refrained from accession to or approval of some human rights instruments, including the International Convent on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; and especially Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is sure to give a negative turn to UN bodies’ report on the human rights situation in that country.

The United States, as a country which has constantly tried to boast of its human rights strategies and superiority and which has spared to effort to slam other states for their human rights situation, does not seem likely to have a pleasant November ahead of it. Of course, the wit it has shown in preparing its periodical review has been interesting, at least, to me.


(1) It is both interesting and funny that, at least, one or more references to Obama’s remarks can be found in all addresses and oral statements of US representatives at the Council.

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