United States's First-Ever Universal Period Review by the UN

United States's First-Ever Universal Period Review by the UN

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GENEVA -- Friday, March 18, is a big day for the United States, not that most Americans would know it. It marks the first time the 47-member Human Rights Council will receive the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States's human rights record.

It is the culmination of a long process to understand the situation of fundamental human rights in the country. It follows more than a year of town meetings throughout the U.S., an inquiry by a three-country panel, dubbed the "troika," and a momentous effort by the United Nations to de-politicize the human rights review process.

The UPR studies every country member of the UN, some 192 currently, each four years. The process was initiated by the General Assembly of the UN in 2006, by the same resolution that established the Human Rights Council, and wiped out the previous Human Rights Commission. The aim was to treat every country equally, reviewing all, and not just the select few targets of whichever powerful political bloc in the Commission deemed worthy of scrutiny. While some countries, like Liberia, Jamaica, and Honduras, have undergone scrutiny this week, it is the United States that is generating buzz. After all, how can one scrutinize human rights in the United States -- their record is
spotless, no?

Of course not. But the criticism of the United States by the Council members and observer states (a whole host of non-member countries) has largely centered on US foreign policy. Drone attacks and use of smart bombs on civilians, torture of detainees abroad, and support for "special measures" investigating only certain countries, like North Korea, to the exclusion of others, sums up most countries' criticism of the United States. Our internal policies and human rights situations go unnoticed, for the most part.

That's where the UPR comes into play. On the first round of review, last November, the U.S. received a slab of disapproval for discriminating against minorities, and using the death penalty
indiscriminately. A group called U.S. Human Rights Network put together videos and hosted the 10 town hall meetings across the U.S. where representatives from the State Department listened to activists' concerns on human rights violations in the states.

But for Friday, it's mostly Iranians who are lining up -- literally -- to lob more critiques of the "regime," as some Iranian representatives termed the U.S. government. Thursday, March 17, was the morning when groups wanting to "intervene" or speak in the Council session on the UPR had to line up and vie for one of the coveted spots on the list. According to sources, Iranians lined up as early as 5:30 a.m. By all accounts, they appear to be so-called GNGOs, pronounced "gongos," or activist groups paid by their own govenrments to take advantage of the civil society mechanisms at the Human Rights Council. NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, are supposed to represent civil
society, but sometimes they appear to be closer to the government line. That's when they get the derogatory term "gongo." Regardless of their motivations, they are only some of interested parties in
Friday's UPR presentation.

Surprisingly, the U.S. really went out of its way to vilify a host of countries in its General Debate statement a few days ago, a very perilous position to take days before its first Universal Periodic Review. A litany of countries made it onto the statement read by the United States Ambassador to the Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, a former affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation of Stanford University. Appointed by
President Obama, by presenting her cursory list of countries violating human rights, she not only made the U.S. look like the bully many countries say it is, but she also received a reprimand
from the chair of the meeting, for calling Myanmar by another name. Burma is not the official UN name for the country, she was told after addressing the Council.

That was the low point for the U.S. delegation. Previous statements on the right to vote and on sustainable agriculture, delivered by lower level delegates, explored important issues in some depth.

On Friday, the Human Rights Council will probably adopt the UPR report, becoming the first formal acceptance of a comprehensive review of the US human rights record in the history of the United Nations. Community leaders from throughout the US spoke Thursday about a host of human rights issues, from anti-collective bargaining measures in North Carolina, police shootings and the Oscar Grant saga in northern California, and the failure of most US policy leaders to understand and accept our treaty obligations.

Organizer and University of Hawai'i professor Joshua Cooper took the opportunity to praise the role government officials, including the heads of various administrative agencies, played in the lead-up to the UPR. They answered the public, or "civil society," at some of the town hall meetings nationwide. However, Cooper stressed that officials failed to follow up in those regions, preferring to stick with their East Coast-centric meetings. Cooper detailed the need for a national human rights institution, as many countries have created, to permanently investigate US implementation of its international
obligations.

We'll see if Friday's UPR statements, where the U.S. responds to comments made by the rest of the world last November, take their concerns seriously. The world is watching.


Peter Micek (prmicek@usfca.edu) is a Frank C. Newman Intern at Human Rights Advocates and a student at the University of San Francisco School of Law.