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UN Issues Scathing Assessment of US Human Rights Record

United Nations chambers
United Nations chambers
Jamil Dakwar,
Director, ACLU Human Rights Program
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May 15, 2015

The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a scathing report today, consisting of 348 recommendations that address myriad human rights violations in the United States.

The report came out as a part of a mechanism called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which examines the human rights record of all U.N. member states. The council questioned the United States on its record earlier this week.

Although many of these recommendations in the report are redundant or too general to offer tangible solutions to the human rights situation in the U.S., they echo many of the concerns raised by U.S. civil society groups like the ACLU, who attended the review and offered concrete recommendations to reverse policies that are inconsistent with international human rights principles.

For example, the report adopted a recommendation made by Sweden to “halt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end use of detention for reason of deterrence.” The report also adopted several recommendations calling on the Obama administration to independently investigate allegations of torture documented in the recent Senate torture report and provide reparations to victims. Denmark, for instance, recommended that the United States “further ensure that all victims of torture and ill-treatment — whether still in US custody or not — obtain redress and have an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation and as full rehabilitation as possible, including medical and psychological assistance.”

In addition, the report included many fitting recommendations to address police brutality and excessive use of force as well as ending racial profiling against minorities and immigrants. Mexico recommended that the U.S. “adopt measures at the federal level to prevent and punish excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against members of ethnic and racial minorities, including unarmed persons, which disproportionately affect Afro American and undocumented migrants.” Ireland, for its part, directly touched on the broken trust between American law enforcement and communities of color and recommended that the U.S. “continue to vigorously investigate recent cases of alleged police-led human rights abuses against African-Americans and seek to build improved relations and trust between U.S. law enforcement and all communities around the U.S.”

While in some areas, like LGBT rights and freedom of speech, the United States’ human rights record fares far better than other parts of the world, in many areas — including national security, criminal justice, social and economic rights, and immigration policy — the U.S. has an abysmal record compared to other liberal democracies.

This report sends a strong message of no-confidence in the U.S. human rights record. It clearly demonstrates that the United States has a long way to go to live up to its human rights obligations and commitments. This will be the last major human rights review for the Obama administration, and it offers a critical opportunity to shape the president’s human rights legacy, especially in the areas of racial justice, national security, and immigrants’ rights.

The Obama administration has until September to respond to the 348 recommendations. At that time, the administration will make a direct commitment to the world by deciding which of the 348 will be accepted and implemented over the next four years, and which will be rejected. While many of the recommendations fall outside the constitutional powers of the executive branch — such as treaty ratification and legislative actions on the national, state, and local levels — the Obama administration should use its executive powers to their fullest extent to effectuate U.S. human rights obligations.

The U.S. record for implementing U.N. recommendations has thus far been very disappointing, but if President Obama really cares about his human rights legacy, he should direct his administration to adopt a plan of action with concrete benchmarks and effective implementation mechanisms that will ensure that the U.S. indeed learns from its shortcomings and genuinely seeks to create a more perfect union.

The world will be watching.

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