RIGHTS: U.S. in the Hot Seat for Universal Periodic Review

  • by Gustavo Capdevila (geneva)
  • Inter Press Service

But on Nov. 5 the roles will be reversed when, for the first time, Washington comes before the United Nations Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

The U.N. General Assembly created the Human Rights Council in 2006, and equipped it with the UPR mechanism to evaluate compliance and promotion of human rights in the 192 U.N. member states over a four-year cycle (an average of 48 countries a year).

But after eight sessions assessing the human rights records of nearly two-thirds of the member states, the UPR mechanism has received mixed reviews.

At a Council debate this month, Russia clamed that negative practices, such as politically motivated criticism and charges based on specific interests, still persist in the UPR.

Cuba said the selectiveness and double standards that discredited the former Commission on Human Rights, resulting in its replacement four years ago by the Human Rights Council, still tarnish the UPR mechanism. However, it supported the present structure of the UPR and warned against attempts to change the intergovernmental nature of the process.

The delegation from Hungary said human rights were being subject to diplomatic negotiation for political reasons, and that the UPR mechanism was flawed by friendly states doing each other favours by not raising prickly subjects during the reviews.

In contrast, the United States declared the UPR a positive contribution, while urging that it be improved and that state accountability be reinforced.

Submitting its official report to the Council Aug. 20, Washington stated: 'The United States is proud of its record on human rights and the role our country has played in advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world.'

U.S. civil society representatives were more cautious, however. 'We see this as one step in the rehabilitation of the U.S.'s reputation and its participation within the human rights structures,' Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), told IPS.

'There are real human rights concerns within the U.S., and if the U.S. is going to be an effective partner in the Human Rights Council it has to honestly begin to address those concerns,' he added.

USHRN is made up of more than 300 human rights and social justice organisations. It is the first time such a broad spectrum of U.S. civil society organisations has come to Geneva, the headquarters of the main United Nations human rights bodies.

Previously, only organisations concerned with gender and racial discrimination had come to this Swiss city, although in recent years U.S. activists concerned about the human rights effects of Washington's anti-terrorism policies have also showed up.

These worries have not disappeared, Baraka admitted. 'People are concerned about the ongoing impact of the so-called war on terror.' The government's policies 'are targeting Muslims and the Arab communities,' he said.

'A number of states have expressed concerns about the ongoing racial profiling and treatment of migrant workers. These are a concern to many people,' Baraka stressed.

Sarah Paoletti, UPR coordinator for USHRN and a Law School professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Council's review of the United States 'is a unique opportunity for us to address economic, social and cultural rights in the U.S..'

'The U.S. does not exactly have a great track record when it comes to ratifying international human rights treaties,' Paoletti said.

Washington signed the U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 33 years ago, but Congress has not ratified it.

The covenant requires states to guarantee equal rights to education, housing, equal opportunities and social benefits.

But in the United States, students from black, immigrant and low-income families disproportionately attend low-budget schools, widening the education and opportunities gap between these groups and the rest of society, said USHRN.

The USHRN delegation visiting Geneva also said agricultural wages have stagnated for the past 30 years.

'The pay isn't enough to support our families decently,' said Lucas Benítez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, founded in Immokalee, Florida by Latin American, Haitian and Maya Indian migrant workers.

Moreover, employers often abuse workers physically and verbally, and sexually harass the women, Benítez complained. 'It seems incredible, but it's modern-day slavery,' he said.

Baraka said the State Department has been taking a lead in the consultative process with civil society to prepare the UPR report, 'but they have a difficult task because there are serious issues that as human rights defenders we have to raise.'

One of the reforms they are calling for is the creation of a national human rights institution in the U.S., he said. 'We have been negotiating with the government and there has been some movement on that within the Obama administration.'

The activists hope that there will be some 'solid recommendations' coming out of the Nov. 5 process, 'that will allow civil society and the government to work together to implement them.'

A track record of non-ratification

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is not the only human rights treaty awaiting U.S. ratification.

JoAnn Ward, of the University of Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute, spelled out the long list of international treaties Washington has so far chosen to ignore.

Together with Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan and Tonga, the United States has failed to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, although unlike these others, it has signed it.

Only the United States and Somalia have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. According to USHRN, 19 percent of U.S. children were living below the poverty line in 2008, a greater proportion than for adults and the elderly.

Nor has the U.S. ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, or the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, among others.

The United States cannot assert its leadership in the Council without a clear demonstration that it is committed to ratifying and implementing all of the major human rights instruments, Baraka said.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service