Welcoming UN observations, civil society urges greater U.S. commitment to human rights

A demonstrator protests against Guantanamo Bay prison during a Stop the War rally in Trafalgar Square, central LondonFollowing last week’s release of the UN Human Rights Committee’s “concluding observations” on the compliance of the United States with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), U.S. civil society groups have urged greater commitment by the U.S. government in meeting its international obligations.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the “scathing report” called into question the legitimacy of a wide range of current U.S. policies, including counterterrorism operations, immigrants’ rights, voting rights, and the criminal justice system.

“The committee’s recommendations highlight the gaps between U.S. human rights obligations and current laws and practices,” said ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar.

“The Human Rights Committee rightly called out the United States for setting dangerous examples from counterterrorism operations to an unfair criminal justice system to inhumane treatment of migrants. President Obama now has an opportunity to reverse course and reshape his human rights legacy by taking concrete actions like declassifying the Senate report on CIA torture and ending dragnet surveillance and unlawful targeted killings,” Dakwar said.

Writing at the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Astrid Reyes noted the extremely serious nature of the U.S.’s ICCPR violations:

The committee condemned the United States’ lack of accountability for disappearance, torture, and unlawful killings of terrorism suspects, and its failure to apply the ICCPR to international operations. In addition, the committee denounced racial disparities in law enforcement that have led to the incarceration of a disproportionate number of minorities (particularly Blacks and Latinos), effectively denying them basic human rights throughout the criminal justice process. This includes severe sentencing such as the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles; improper use of solitary confinement; and denial of civil rights following incarceration (most notably, the right to vote).

While the committee noted several areas where the U.S. record has improved since its last review in 2006, the Concluding Observations include important structural recommendations, such as creating an independent human rights monitoring body and expanding existing mechanisms to monitor the implementation of human rights at federal, state, local and tribal levels – providing them with adequate human and financial resources.

The U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), which has long been advocating for full implementation of the ICCPR at the federal, state and local levels, called the UN’s concluding observations “a strong reflection of the important work being done by human rights defenders across the country.”

“We welcome the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendation that the U.S. ensure effective remedies for violations under the ICCPR and to take steps to bring U.S. domestic law in line with its human rights obligations,” said Ejim Dike, Executive Director of USHRN.

“We urge the Administration to follow up on the recommendations by the Committee which make clear that the US has significant work to do to fully comply with its human rights obligations in a broad range of issues including racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, gun violence, excessive use of force by law enforcement in communities of color and on the border, access to healthcare for immigrants, criminalization of the homeless, and forced psychiatric treatment,” she said.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) “applaud[ed] the UN and the international community for holding the US accountable to its international obligations and shedding a necessary light on areas where it is falling short,” describing the UN report as “highly critical.”

The UN’s main areas of concern, CCR noted, included:

  • the U.S. “targeted killing” program;
  • the lack of progress in the closure of Guantánamo, urging the U.S. to expedite the process of transferring detainees out of the prison, including to Yemen, and reiterating its position that the U.S. must end its practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial;
  • the secrecy and lack of accountability around Bush-era abuses, including the limited number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of contractors and high ranking U.S. officials for killings and torture of detainees;
  • the imposition of the death penalty in a racially discriminatory manner and the conditions on death row;
  • reports of criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, and sitting in particular areas, raising concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment;
  • the use of prolonged solitary confinement, particularly for at-risk people and those in pretrial detention, urging the abolition of solitary for people under 18 and for people with serious mental illness, and strict limitations on its use, overall; and
  • the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD, and racial profiling overall (while underlining its support for recent plans to reform the use of stop and frisk).

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said “the United States should heed calls issued on March 27, 2014, by an important UN human rights body to ensure that its surveillance activities are consistent with the right to privacy, both within and outside its borders.”

HRW noted that the UN Human Rights Committee’s “conclusions address a wide range of serious human rights problems in the US, but the findings on surveillance are notable, as they are the committee’s first statement on the extent to which privacy rights are affected by widespread communications surveillance.”

The committee called on the United States to comply with privacy requirements set forth in article 17 of the ICCPR, particularly to respect the right to privacy, regardless of the nationality or location of individuals being monitored. It also criticized the lack of transparency in U.S. laws, urging the United States to reform its system of oversight of surveillance to protect the rights of those affected.

“The US insists it has no international legal obligations to respect the privacy rights of foreigners outside its borders, but one of the UN’s most important human rights bodies has now made clear it disagrees,” said Andrea Prasow, HRW’s senior U.S. national security counsel. “It’s time for the U.S. to recognize that people outside the country have just as much right to have their privacy respected as those inside the US, and that any surveillance must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) concurred, with EFF’s International Rights Director, Katitza Rodriguez, welcoming the Committee’s observations on U.S. violations of privacy rights.  “It’s imperative the United States comply with its human rights treaty obligations, specifically Article 17 of the ICCPR, which protect the right of privacy for everyone in the same manner, within or outside US borders, regardless of nationality or place of residence,” Rodriguez said.

According to an EFF statement:

It’s very disappointing that the United States maintain its views that its human rights obligations under the ICCPR do not extend to its actions abroad, a view that defeats the object and purpose of the treaty. The Committee agreed and reiterates that the United States has an extraterritorial duty to protect human rights—including the right to privacy— to its action abroad regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals.

The Committee rightly criticized the current system of oversight for NSA surveillance activities, highlighting concern with the judicial interpretations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). These secret rulings prevent individuals from knowing the law with sufficient precision. Knowledge of and clarity in the law is a crucial principle that is clearly defined in our 13 Necessary and Proportionate Principles.

The NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, applauded the concluding observations, noting that the UN report identifies issues of felony disenfranchisement, stand your ground laws, the death penalty and more.

“This report reiterated what those in the civil rights community have known for too long – the United States has more work to do to meet its human rights obligations,” stated Lorraine C. Miller, NAACP Interim President and CEO.

“From felony disenfranchisement and stand your ground laws to voter suppression and the school to prison pipeline, we are pleased the Human Rights Committee has elevated these issues on the international stage. This gives us leverage in the United States to more aggressively address these issues at home,” she said.

While the reaction to the UN report was overwhelmingly positive, the U.S. human rights community was not entirely satisfied with the concluding observations. The Center for Constitutional Rights, for example, regretted that the Human Rights Committee failed to question the U.S. government on the devastation the invasion and occupation of Iraq has brought to both Iraqi civilians and U.S. veterans.

A “shadow report” submitted by CCR to the Human Rights Committee, entitled “US Veterans and Iraqi Organizations Seek Accountability for Human Rights Crisis Resulting from a Decade of US-Led War,” noted “the lack of any recognition whatsoever by the US government of the disastrous and tragic consequences” caused by the war against Iraq.

“Despite having waged an illegal war based on false justifications, no civilian or military official has been investigated or held accountable for their role in fabricating the justification to go to war in Iraq. In fact, the current administration recently argued in a legal case brought by victims of the Iraq war that officials responsible for planning and waging the war in violation of international law should be afforded immunity and shielded from suit,” CCR noted in its shadow report.

The full concluding observations of the UN Human Rights Committee are available here. For more information about U.S. obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, see the ACLU’s FAQ page.

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