November 29, 2021

U. N. Human Rights Panel Prepares to Challenge U.S. Domestic Policies


The Palais Wilson in Geneva, once the headquarters of the League of Nations, will be the venue for the U.N. Human Rights Committee’s review of the U.S. next month. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


From “stand your ground” laws to voter-ID, from drone strikes to NSA surveillance, from profiling of Muslims to continued detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. government’s positions on a wide range of issues will be placed under a United Nations’ spotlight next month.

At a session in Geneva running from October 14 to November 1, the U.N. Human Rights Committee will hold a periodic review of the U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was signed by the U.S. in 1977 and ratified in 1992.

The Human Rights Committee, which comprises 18 independent legal experts who serve for four years, is a separate entity to the Human Rights Council (HRC), also based in Geneva, which the Obama administration joined in 2009.

The U.S. ICCPR review is the fourth undertaken, and the first since the Obama administration came to office pledging that its engagement with the U.N. human rights apparatus would set a new standard.

“We’re committed to advancing a strong human rights agenda, working with multiple partners from all regions of the world,” then-Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said in September 2009, the day the U.S. took up its seat on the HRC for the first time.

“The second thing that’s going to guide our participation here is a commitment to a universal application of human rights standards – to everyone, including ourselves,” he said.

Citing the upcoming ICCPR review, Posner added, “We’ll engage our government, we’ll engage civil society. Our intention is to be able to lead by example.”

When the U.S. Senate ratified the ICCPR in 1992, it stipulated several “reservations, declarations and understandings,” including one stating, “Nothing in this Covenant requires or authorizes legislation, or other action, by the United States of America prohibited by the Constitution of the United States as interpreted by the United States.”

The review in October is the culmination of a lengthy process that began with the federal government in December 2011 submitting a 188-page report on its compliance with the ICCPR and its 27 articles, which range from “self-determination” to “the rights of minorities to culture, religion and language.”

The committee also received submissions from non-governmental organizations, covering numerous, often-controversial issues such as the “disproportionate minority impact of felon disfranchisement” (Florida ACLU); “abusive counterterrorism policies” (Human Rights Watch); “restrictive abortion laws” and “the impact of religious refusal laws on women’s reproductive healthcare” (Center for Reproductive Rights); and “discrimination” against immigrants, people of color, Muslims, sex workers and LGBT persons (Human Rights Watch).

Amnesty International contributed several documents, including a hefty report entitled “Human Rights Betrayed.”

Armed with these submissions and its own questions, the committee last April sent a “list of issues” – basically a questionnaire asking the government for clarification. The U.S. in return provided a “reply to the list of issues” in July.

These documents, on which the October review will be based, reveal some of the areas the U.N. experts consider to be problematic. Among them:

Stand your ground” laws: The committee wanted to know whether these laws “provide blanket immunity to persons using force as defined and permitted by such laws.”

The government replied that more than half the U.S. states have some form of these laws, and that some provide civil and criminal immunity. It noted that from 2007 to 2011, victims used firearms to threaten or attack an offender in one percent (235,700) of all “violent criminal victimization situations.”

In a related question, the committee asked about victims of gun violence and on “steps taken to better protect people against the risks associated with proliferation of firearms.”

The Human Rights Committee has already criticized Florida’s “stand your ground” law in particular. In a report on gun violence late last year it cited the Travyon Martin shooting and charged that Florida’s law was not compliant with “international human rights principles of necessity and proportionality.”

Profiling:  The committee wanted to know what was being done to eliminate racial and religious profiling of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians.

The government’s response stressed that it considers profiling to be “premised on the erroneous assumption that any particular individual possessing one or more irrelevant personal characteristics is more likely to engage in misconduct than another individual who does not possess those characteristics.”

It said new FBI agents are trained to conduct investigations and interviews in accordance with U.S. laws, regulations and the Constitution, “which prohibit invidious racial, ethnic, and religious profiling,” and that the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) carry out training in this area.

Surveillance:  The committee asked about “steps taken to ensure judicial oversight over National Security Agency surveillance of phone, email and fax communications” both inside the U.S. and abroad, and also for a justification of “roving” wiretaps (whereby agents are allowed to follow a target and lawfully intercept communication with a single court order even if the suspect tries to evade surveillance by changing communications devices.)

The government said in response that legislation allowing “roving” wiretaps under certain circumstances has been reauthorized until mid-2015. It said the provision corresponds to roving authority used in law-enforcement surveillance since 1986, and repeatedly upheld in U.S. courts.

“The United States welcomes a discussion of the balance between security and civil liberties,” the government told the U.N. committee.

Voting rights:  In reply to questions about eligibility requirements for voting, the government pointed out that the Constitution “generally provides that governments of the individual states, not the U.S. Congress, determine who is eligible to vote in their state.”

However, “Congress has the power to regulate elections for federal offices and has constitutional authority to eradicate discrimination in voting through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.”

It said varying restrictions of voting for felons are in place in 48 states, with some providing for later restoration of voting rights while a few prohibit felons from voting for life.

The government also outlined DOJ objections to voter-ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, and said the department would “continue to carefully monitor jurisdictions around the country for voting changes that may hamper voting rights.”

Last year the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on two occasions approached the U.N. in Geneva to complain about what it called “racially-discriminatory election laws.”

Other issues the U.N. committee wants to probe in the upcoming review include drone strikes, torture, “racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” the ending of detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, and “police brutality and excessive use of force” against “undocumented migrants crossing the United States-Mexico border.”