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Double Standards? Panel Cites US Human Rights Treaty Breaches

When America calls others to account for human rights offenses, it must be ready to acknowledge and correct its own lapses.

Gallery of national flags at the UN entrance in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo via Shutterstock)

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Last week, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a draft evaluation of US performance in upholding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While some progress was acknowledged, serious lapses – including NSA spying and failures of accountability – were detailed.

When America calls others to account for human rights offenses, it must be ready to acknowledge and correct its own lapses.

Last week, a bipartisan group of 52 members of Congress urged President Obama to address human rights concerns in his meeting with Saudi King Abdullah. During the same week, the UN Human Rights Committee assessed US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – and found the US wanting in many respects.

The ICCPR defines fundamental civil and political rights, including the rights to life, due process, fair trial and privacy. It also enshrines various freedoms, including the freedom from torture, and provides for equal protection. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, the ICCPR came into force in March 1976. The US became a state member in 1992.

Chaired by Sir Nigel Rodley, a British law professor, the Human Rights Committee of 18 independent human rights experts monitors the ICCPR. The United States was among several countries that the committee reviewed in March. Following two weeks of engagement with US representatives, the committee released an advance copy of its “concluding observations on the fourth report of the United States of America” on March 27.

On the positive side, the committee cited as US progress: full implementation of the Article 6.5 prohibition against death sentences for persons under 18; recognition of the extraterritorial application of habeas corpus to Guantanamo prisoners; an executive order to ensure lawful interrogations; support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and the establishment of periodic reviews for Guantanamo detainees.

However, the negatives outnumber the positives. The committee cited more than 20 “principal matters of concern,” including racial disparities in the criminal justice system, racial profiling, gun violence, prolonged detention of immigrants, solitary confinement, life without parole sentencing of juveniles, and the lack of voting rights for convicted felons. Yet the most significant of the cited shortcomings were:

(1) Extraterritorial application. The committee declined to accept the US position that the covenant does not apply outside national borders.

(2) Targeted killings and drone strikes. The committee emphatically rejected the Americans’ self-defense rationale and urged the US to review its legal justification for drone strikes. It also called for independent oversight and more transparency of the rules governing the drone program.

(3) Guantanamo. The committee condemned the US policy of indefinite detention and called for the prison’s closure. Moreover, it said that the US should use its criminal justice system, not military commissions, to try Guantanamo prisoners, and that detainee transfers to home countries should be speeded up.

(4) Non-refoulement/Extraordinary rendition. The committee deplored the practice of transferring prisoners to countries where they are likely to endure harsh punishment.

(5) Accountability. Referring especially to past acts of torture and unlawful killing in US operations abroad, the committee criticized the Obama administration for its failure to bring criminal charges against government employees and contractors who participated in such acts. Significantly, it said the US should “ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, are prosecuted and sanctioned and that victims are provided with effective remedies.” The committee also called for release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the CIA’s secret detention program.

(6) NSA spying. Citing Article 17 (“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence….),” the committee reproached the Obama administration for NSA’s bulk phone metadata program. It also criticized the inadequate legal oversight and secrecy.

(7) Treatment of undocumented immigrants. The committee deplored US enforcement of prolonged detention and mandatory deportations.

The committee’s list of US human rights abuses attracted extensive media attention abroad, when released March 27. While the New York Times devoted a single paragraph to the report, its March 28 edition contained more lengthy stories on the extension of a human rights monitor for Iran, an investigation of war crimes in Sri Lanka and an inquiry on North Korean crimes against humanity.

Perhaps the US government (and the mainstream media) should devote more attention to human rights issues at home.

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