UN Blast of U.S. Human Rights Record Goes Mostly Unnoticed

U.S. media outlets have largely ignored a UN report noting America’s human rights violations.

Ana Martinez June 5, 2014

The report applauds President Obama's commitment to closing detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay, but criticizes the administration's failure to set a timeline for closure. (Wikimedia Commons)

On March 27, the Unit­ed Nations pub­lished a report crit­i­cal of the U.S. human rights record. The 11-page report high­lights issues such as the NSA spy­ing, the fail­ure to close Guan­tá­namo Bay deten­tion camp, use of the death penal­ty and the Amer­i­can fail­ure to com­ply with human rights agree­ments out­side its bor­ders. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the U.S. media has large­ly ignored this report.

As José Luis Díaz, a representative of Amnesty International at the UN, pointed out ... 'The United States is adept at demanding human rights change from other governments while failing to meet international standards itself.'

The report was deliv­ered by the Unit­ed Nations Human Rights Com­mit­tee, which mon­i­tors com­pli­ance with the Inter­na­tion­al Covenant on Civ­il and Polit­i­cal Rights (ICCPR) — one of the world’s most impor­tant human rights treaties, which was passed by the UN in 1976 and rat­i­fied by the Unit­ed States in 1992. The Covenant calls upon treaty sig­na­to­ries to sub­mit reg­u­lar reports on the imple­men­ta­tion of human rights in their coun­tries. Fol­low­ing reports like these, the Com­mit­tee typ­i­cal­ly express­es its con­cerns and makes rec­om­men­da­tions, but treaty sig­na­to­ries, such as the Unit­ed States, can ignore such rec­om­men­da­tions with­out penalty.

With regard to NSA sur­veil­lance, the Com­mit­tee expressed con­cerns about the vio­la­tions of pri­va­cy that occurred in the col­lec­tion of pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions of U.S. and non‑U.S. cit­i­zens. The report ques­tions whether the cur­rent over­sight sys­tem of the NSA’s activ­i­ties effec­tive­ly pro­tects the rights of those affect­ed. The U.N. report asks the Unit­ed States to take all nec­es­sary pre­cau­tions to ensure that the sur­veil­lance activ­i­ties — both with­in and out­side of its bor­ders — com­ply with the ICCPR. More­over, the UN rec­om­mends that cur­rent NSA over­sight pro­ce­dures be reformed to lim­it inva­sions into an individual’s pri­vate communications.

Mean­while, in rela­tion to Guan­tá­namo Bay, the Com­mit­tee praised Obama’s com­mit­ment to close the facil­i­ty. But it crit­i­cized the administration’s fail­ure to pro­vide a time­line in which this will occur. The State par­ty should expe­dite the trans­fer of detainees des­ig­nat­ed for trans­fer,” the paper reads, and ensure either their tri­al or imme­di­ate release, and the clo­sure of the Guan­tá­namo facility.”

Address­ing the human rights of prison inmates, the Com­mit­tee denounced the poor deten­tion con­di­tions in death row facil­i­ties and the use of pro­longed soli­tary con­fine­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly in pre­tri­al deten­tion cas­es. It then asked the U.S. gov­ern­ment to mon­i­tor deten­tion con­di­tions and impose strict lim­its on the use of soli­tary confinement.

While the release of the report was cov­ered in the inter­na­tion­al media—The Guardian pub­lished a num­ber of arti­cles, as did Al Jazeera Amer­i­cathe report was large­ly ignored by main­stream U.S. media, with the excep­tion of The New York Times and the Asso­ci­at­ed Press.

The U.N. report was released amid Washington’s efforts to stop Moscow from seiz­ing east­ern Ukraine. Ear­li­er last month, Oba­ma told Putin that his actions were a breach of inter­na­tion­al law, includ­ing Russia’s oblig­a­tion under the UN Char­ter, and of its 1997 mil­i­tary bas­ing agree­ment with Ukraine.” Yet, since 1995, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has argued that it doesn’t have to com­ply with the Covenant out­side of its bor­ders and has used this claim to jus­ti­fy actions in con­flict zones. As José Luis Díaz, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al at the UN, point­ed out in an inter­view with Al Jazeera, The Unit­ed States is adept at demand­ing human rights change from oth­er gov­ern­ments while fail­ing to meet inter­na­tion­al stan­dards itself.”

In spite of the Committee’s neg­a­tive assess­ment, the Unit­ed States has not always been a lag­gard with regard to human rights treaties. Fol­low­ing the cre­ation of the UN, the Unit­ed States was a world leader in the devel­op­ment of human rights. The ICCPRas well as oth­er human rights agree­mentsincor­po­rat­ed U.S. human rights ter­mi­nol­o­gy and con­sti­tu­tion­al approach­es. Since the cre­ation of the U.N. Char­ter in 1945, the num­ber of states that have signed inter­na­tion­al human rights accords has grown dra­mat­i­cal­ly — an increase that sug­gests we are one step clos­er to the uni­ver­sal recog­ni­tion of human rights norms.

Nonethe­less, human rights agree­ments such as the ICCPR have many short­com­ings. For one thing, when the Unit­ed States rat­i­fied the Covenant, the Sen­ate imple­ment­ed a num­ber of com­plex reser­va­tions, under­stand­ings and dec­la­ra­tions that have ham­pered the enforce­ment of the agree­ment at a nation­al lev­el. Addi­tion­al­ly, many stud­ies acknowl­edge that the impact of human rights treaties is unclear. Some polit­i­cal sci­en­tists have gone fur­ther and sug­gest­ed that sign­ing agree­ments such as the ICCPR does not have a direct impact on the state’s behav­ior. Coun­tries such as the Cen­tral African Repub­lic in 1981; Equa­to­r­i­al Guinea in 1987; Soma­lia in 1990; Sudan in 1986; and Syr­ia, as the for­mer Syr­i­an Arab Repub­lic in 1969 are all sig­na­to­ries to the Covenant. These nations are also among the 10 coun­tries with the low­est rat­ing for polit­i­cal rights and civ­il lib­er­ties, accord­ing to the Free­dom House—a Unit­ed States-based NGO ded­i­cat­ed to the expan­sion of free­dom around the world.

But despite its short­com­ings, the Covenant pro­vides coun­tries with a stan­dard against which they can mea­sure, eval­u­ate and re-exam­ine their nation­al laws, poli­cies and prac­tices. Addi­tion­al­ly, it is able to gen­er­ate infor­ma­tion about states’ human rights records and direct the atten­tion of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty toward human rights abus­es. Thus, even though the Covenant has lim­it­ed pow­ers and relies on vol­un­tary com­pli­ance, it serves as a plat­form to estab­lish human rights norms and to spot­light coun­tries that vio­late those norms.

It’s pos­si­ble that Wash­ing­ton isn’t ful­ly com­ply­ing with the ICCPR because U.S. breach­es of human rights accords are not on the scale of what is hap­pen­ing in coun­tries such as the Cen­tral African Repub­lic or Syr­ia. Sim­i­lar­ly, this might also explain the lack of cov­er­age of the U.N. report on U.S. out­lets. But what the U.S. media fail to under­stand is that by decid­ing not to inform the pub­lic of Amer­i­can vio­la­tions of inter­na­tion­al human rights agree­ments, they pro­tect the gov­ern­ment from being held account­able and strip the Covenant of one of its main pow­ers over rogue states — the pow­er to name and shame.

Ana Mar­tinez is a Spring 2014 intern.
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