Scathing criticism of U.S. human rights record at UN review
The United States came under sustained criticism last week during a two-day review by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding treaty ratified by the United States in 1992.
Much of the attention that the review has received in the media has focused on the U.S.’s refusal to recognize the ICCPR’s mandate over its actions beyond its own borders, using the “extra-territoriality” claim to justify its actions in Guantánamo and in conflict zones.
Walter Kälin, a Swiss international human rights lawyer who sits on the committee, criticized the U.S. position. “This world is an unsafe place,” Kälin said. “Will it not become even more dangerous if any state would be willing to claim that international law does not prevent them from committing human rights violations abroad?”
Besides its controversial counter-terrorism tactics, including indefinite detention and the use of drones to kill terrorist suspects far from any battlefield, the U.S. also came under criticism for a litany of human rights abuses that included NSA surveillance, police brutality, the death penalty, rampant gun violence and endemic racial inequality.
The U.S. government was also reprimanded for the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system, with committee members pointing out that the sentence of life without parole for child offenders may raise issues under article 7 of the ICCPR, which prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While this matter is left to the states under the U.S. system of federalism, the national government should require that juveniles be separated from adult prisoners, the U.S. was told.
Corporal punishment of children in schools, detention centers and homes was also raised, with the U.S. delegation asked what policy has been adopted to eliminate corporal punishment and treat children as minors rather than adults in the criminal justice system. To this criticism, the U.S. responded that it is still “exceptional” in the U.S. for children to be tried in adult courts.
Concern was also expressed over mandatory deportation of immigrants convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors without regard to individual cases. Further, the U.S. has failed to meet international obligations for freedom of religious belief in relation to indigenous communities, the committee said.
The U.S. was asked for a timeline for closing the Guantanamo detention center, and concern was raised over the fairness of the military commissions set up to try terrorism suspects. The majority of Guantanamo detainees approved for transfer remain in administrative limbo, the U.S. was reminded.
When it comes to mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency, the U.S. delegation was asked if the NSA surveillance is “necessary and proportionate,” and whether the oversight under the FISA court could be considered sufficient.
NSA surveillance raises concerns under articles 17 and 19 of the ICCPR, the U.S. was told. According to article 17,
1. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.
2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Article 19 guarantees that,
1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
Committee members also highlighted the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute any of the officials responsible for permitting waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques under the previous administration.
The committee weighed in on the ongoing conflict between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling in particular for the U.S. to release a report on a Bush-era interrogation program at the heart of the dispute.
“It would appear that a Senator Dianne Feinstein claims that the computers of the Senate have been hacked into in the context of this investigation,” Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Rescia, a committee member from Costa Rica, told the U.S. delegation.
“In the light of this, we would like hear a commitment that this report will be disclosed, will be made public and therefore be de-classified so that we the committee can really analyze what follow-up you have given to these hearings.”
Committee chair Nigel Rodley, a British law professor and former UN investigator on torture, suggested lawyers in the Bush administration who drew up memorandums justifying the use of harsh interrogation techniques could also be liable to prosecution.
“When evidently seriously flawed legal opinions are issued which then are used as a cover for the committing of serious crimes, one wonders at what point the authors of such opinions may themselves have to be considered part of the criminal plan in the first place?” Rodley said.
“Of course we know that so far there has been impunity.”
This impunity stems in part from the U.S. position that the treaty imposes no human rights obligations on American military and intelligence forces when they operate abroad, rejecting an interpretation by the United Nations and the top State Department lawyer during President Obama’s first term.
“The United States continues to believe that its interpretation — that the covenant applies only to individuals both within its territory and within its jurisdiction — is the most consistent with the covenant’s language and negotiating history,” Mary McLeod, the State Department’s acting legal adviser, said during the session.
This narrow legal reasoning drew criticism from the UN panel, with committee member Yuji Iwasawa, Professor of International Law at the University of Tokyo, pointing out that “No state has made more reservations to the ICCPR than the United States.”
The review last week, held on March 13-14, is a voluntary exercise, repeated every five years, and the U.S. will face no penalties if it ignores the committee’s recommendations, which will appear in a final report in a few weeks’ time.
The Guardian noted however that “the U.S. is clearly sensitive to suggestions that it fails to live up to the human rights obligations enshrined in the convention – as signalled by the large size of its delegation to Geneva this week. And as an act of public shaming, Thursday’s encounter was frequently uncomfortable for the U.S.”