The World of International Organizations

America commits to rights overhaul in U.N. review

U.S. National Guard soldiers deploy last May during protests and rioting in Raleigh, North Carolina (AN/Hannah Tarkelly)
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The United States accepted four-fifths of the almost 350 recommendations for improving its human rights record that other nations served up on Wednesday during a peer review that all of the United Nations’ 193 member nations are obliged to go through every four or five years.

China’s biting criticism of America’s “evil past” was perhaps the most vociferous attack on its record as numerous countries piled up recommendations for the U.S. government to improve in reforming the criminal justice system while combatting racial discrimination, incitement of hatred, systemic racism and xenophobia.

The obligatory check-under-the hood human rights review that many nations would rather skip is called the Universal Periodic Review, or UPR, led by three other nations. This was the third review of the U.S. record by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council since its founding in 2006 — the first two were in November 2010 and in May 2015 — and it was completed at a delicate time, just after the transition from the former Trump administration to U.S. President Joe Biden’s first months.

It also came around the anticipated halfway mark of the coronavirus pandemic, now entering its second year, and followed widespread unrest and violence over the presidential election, including the U.S. Capitol insurrection, and prominent tragedies involving killings of unarmed Black people and detentions of migrant children.

Diplomats from the Bahamas, Germany and Pakistan led the U.S. review, which began in November just barely after Biden became president-elect and Kamala Harris became vice president-elect by defeating former President Donald Trump. The new Biden-Harris administration also has announced it will seek to rejoin the Human Rights Council for a three-year term starting in 2022, in a reversal of Trump’s withdrawal from its chamber in June 2018. Iceland won the election to serve out the remainder of the U.S. term through the end of 2019.

Well more than half of all U.N. member nations delivered statements for the U.S. rights review starting in November. For U.S. adversaries such as China, Iran, Russia, Syria and Venezuela, it afforded a timely and high-profile forum to air their grievances. Many had expressed concerns over the former Trump administration’s “America First” policies and divisive tactics, including hostility to refugees and asylum seekers, refusal to curb gun violence and sanctioned attacks on peaceful protesters.

‘A return to leadership’

Chinese diplomat Jiang Duan complained the United States had not accepted many of China’s recommendations. He invoked the tragedy of more than a half-million American lives lost to the pandemic — one-fifth of all 2.6 million deaths worldwide — along with widespread discrimination and police brutality, and said the U.S. military has “slaughtered innocent civilians” and carried out torture abroad. Yet the U.S. government, he said, “neither apologizes for its evil past of genocide nor provides reparation to the victims.”

The United States, for its part, has also regularly criticized Beijing’s severe crackdown on 1 million ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang Province and other seri0us allegations of Chinese human rights abuses and violations. Similarly, almost half of the Human Rights Council’s 47 member nations from the Asian Pacific region, Europe and North America joined together in delivering the first international condemnation of China in 2019.

But the criticism of the U.S. rights record also was delivered from quarters far closer to home. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, urged the Biden-Harris administration to “lead by the power of example” by taking some bold actions to fight racial discrimination.

“Consistent with its promise to promote racial equity, we call on the administration to adopt a plan of action within one year to fully implement the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,which the U.S. ratified in 1994,” the ACLU said in a statement.

“To be a human rights leader,” it said, “the U.S. government should avoid selective championing of human rights and abandon the previous administration’s policy to create a hierarchy of rights or delegitimize certain rights, such as abortion rights or social and economic rights.”

Lisa Peterson, the U.S. acting assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, said the U.S. accepted, either fully or partially, 263 of the 347 recommendations that came from other nations. “We complete our third Universal Periodic Review proud of our heritage as a nation conceived in liberty, and firmly dedicated to the proposition that all persons are created equal,” she said in a brief statement.

“American leadership still matters,” said Peterson. “We will exercise that leadership with humility, knowing that we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad, but also knowing that no single country acting alone, can fully and effectively address these problems.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the review demonstrates the nation’s “commitment to openness, transparency, and self-reflection, and a return to leadership with confidence, respect, and humility.”

“When President Biden made clear his intent to reengage with the world, he did so with confidence in our diplomatic capacity, the strength of our partnerships and alliances, and the power of our example,” Blinken said in a brief statement. “That example remains among our greatest strengths, and it is our charge to make it even stronger in the years ahead.”

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