The World of International Organizations

Days after election, U.S. rights under inspection

A Milwaukee protester against U.S. detention of migrant children in 2019 (AN/Charles Edward Miller)

GENEVA (Arête News) — With U.S. elections just barely decided, the United Nations Human Rights Council finished putting America’s human rights record under a microscope on Friday in a peer-review process applied to all member nations every four or five years.

Diplomats from the Bahamas, Germany and Pakistan led the review of the United States, one of 14 nations to be scrutinized by the U.N. Human Rights Council this month, during the week after Joe Biden became president-elect and Kamala Harris became vice president-elect by surpassing the minimum 270 Electoral College votes needed to win.

It was the third such review of the U.S. record using a process known as the Universal Periodic Review, in which every country in the world has its rights record scrutinized. The first two U.S. reviews were conducted in November 2010 and May 2015.

The Bahamas’ U.N. Ambassador in Geneva, Keva Lorraine Bain, said the international community delivered 327 recommendations for the U.S. government to examine and respond to at the council’s next session in late winter. The full report will be circulated and finished later this month.

Some 116 nations delivered statements, Bain said, raising concerns and questions outlined in several reports from August that focused on some of the most prominent U.S. tragedies involving the killings of unarmed Black people and detentions of migrant children. The process also provided a forum for fierce U.S. critics such as China, Iran, Russia, Syria, Venezuela to air their grievances.

At a half-day session on Monday that started off the week’s review, Chinese diplomat Jiang Duan called on the United States to “stop interfering for political reasons in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.”

That was a response to U.S. condemnation of Beijing’s crackdown on 1 million ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. However, the U.S. was not alone in that regard; 22 of the council’s 47 member nations from the Asian Pacific region, Europe and North America delivered the first international condemnation of China last year.

Many nations expressed serious concerns about U.S. policies under President Donald Trump’s administration, including its hostility to refugees and asylum seekers, its refusal to crack down on gun violence, and its officially sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters. The session was webcast live from the U.N.’s European headquarters, with both in-person and remote participation due to the pandemic.

“Today, the world watches to see whether the United States will seize the opportunity for its policies to be examined fully under the light of transparency or whether it will shirk from the sunlight and bury its human rights record in the shadows of excuses,” Bob Goodfellow, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. “The issue of gun violence in the United States has been brought to light on a global stage, and the way authorities have responded during a moment of introspection has been disastrous.”

The U.S. delegation was headed by Andrew Bremberg, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, and two U.S. State Department officials, Robert Destro, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, and Marik String, acting legal adviser.

Bremberg said the United States is “immensely proud of its human rights record” that includes an independent judiciary, lawmakers and other elected officials who are regularly held to public account through a free press, and a history of consistently free and fair elections.    

“And indeed, we are seeing this very process play out right now,” he said of the balloting from the November 3 general election in which Biden defeated Trump. “Our nation was built on the desire to ‘form a more perfect union,’ and this same desire inspires our efforts to confront the challenges of today.”

‘Constructive criticism’ welcomed

The juxtaposition of the United States as both a land of opportunity and inequalities was front and center during the council’s debate with the coincidence of Harris becoming the first Black woman and first Asian American woman to serve as vice president of the United States amid the recent tragedies spotlighting the nation’s systemic racism and police brutality.

The urgency of the situation was reflected in the Geneva-based council’s resolution in June calling for a racism report on the United States. The council’s African Group had called for a special debate earlier this year to discuss such a resolution in the wake of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, in Minneapolis on May 25. Floyd’s heart stopped beating while a white police officer pinned him to the ground, keeping a knee on his neck.

Human rights advocates have been pushing for Biden to prioritize these concerns. On their transition team’s website, Biden and Harris responded by listing racial equity among their top four priorities, which also include the pandemic, economic recovery and climate change.

“While the American voters elected a new president who is more committed to universal human rights, the international community must continue to hold the U.S. accountable to its international human rights obligations,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of ACLU’s human rights program.

In 2018, the U.N. human rights office said the Trump administration was violating children’s rights under international law by breaking up families arriving from Mexico. Top human right experts have condemned the Trump administration’s “strategic” attacks on American news media outlets that could trigger real violence against journalists. And, disdainful of international organizations and treaties, the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Human Rights Council.

Trump’s “America First” policies and his unwillingness to criticize other leading authoritarian populists have severely damaged America’s prestige and moral authority around the world, experts say, but Biden, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has promised to rejoin the international organizations and multilateral efforts that Trump abandoned.

The United States is “committed to strengthening and deepening human rights protections,” String, the U.S. legal adviser, told the council, but in many cases its domestic laws are “even stronger” than some the international human rights treaties it has refused to sign.

“For example, while we have not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, few other countries have adopted stronger laws, policies, and programs designed to protect the rights of persons with disabilities,” he said.

Bremberg said we live in a “time of unprecedented degradation of human rights by authoritarian governments around the world,” which makes it more important than ever to defend human rights and fundamental freedoms.

“We do so today by demonstrating that we welcome transparency and constructive criticism, we are willing to openly acknowledge our shortcomings, and are proud of our constant striving to improve,” he said in a statement.

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