UN report a 'moral indictment' of US

Larisa Alexandrovna
Published: Thursday August 3, 2006

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Following a series of hearings held in Geneva in July, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has released a final report which, as RAW STORY has learned, amounts to a moral indictment of US treaty violations, as well as what some attendees and delegates describe as US hubris, willful disregard for international and domestic law, and contempt for the Committee itself.

Understanding the Hearings

At the hearings, signatory nations to the Conventions against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment (CAT) and the 1992 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) — one of two treaties that make up what is commonly referred to as the International Bill of Rights — presented reports on their implementation of the standards agreed upon in the treaties. The Committee holds hearings every four years to review the compliance status of ICCPR signatory member nations.

As part of that review, the official State report is presented along with what is called a “shadow report,” a rebuttal from non-government organizations (NGOs), advocacy groups, and citizen representatives. The US “shadow report” was prepared by The Coalition for Human Rights at Home, a coalition of 142 not-for-profit groups.

The shadow report that this coalition delivered, amounting to a whopping 456 pages, documents domestic human rights abuses that generally go unreported. The report meticulously details over 100 instances of human rights violations as a response to the official report by the US. The US, for its part, was seven years late in delivering any sort of report, something it is obligated to do as a signatory of the ICCPR.

Cat and Mouse

The Geneva hearings were only the latest back and forth between the Committee and the US, following a series of allegations and cases that have already been well discussed, debated, and reviewed. The report summarizes in brief what has been an ongoing attempt by the Committee to compel the US not only to participate, as it is obligated to do by both the ICCPR and CAT, but also to explain its reasons for not participating

The US has thus far offered very little evidence in support of its self-proclaimed stellar human rights record. Rather, much of what is presented at the hearings, in written responses to Committee questions, and in press statements, shows a nation that on one hand touts international treaties as necessary, imposing them on other nations, and at the same time reminds the Committee repeatedly of its own sovereignty, despite its being a full fledged signatory to both the ICCPR and CAT treaties.

The interplay between the Committee and the US is circular at best, working essentially like a cat and mouse game. Delegates have indicated to RAW STORY that the US often responds to written requests for information from the committee with assertions that it has already answered the questions. Typically, they say, the US merely specifies when and where it answered previously and does not attempt to clarify those previous answers.

A particularly clear example of this can be seen in the US answer to question 13 in one written response to the Committee prior to the hearings. The question read as follows:

The State Party, including through the National Security Agency (NSA), reportedly has monitored and still monitors phone, email, and fax communications of individuals both within and outside the U.S., without any judicial oversight. Please comment and explain how such practices comply with article 17 of the Covenant.

Article 17 of the ICPPR reads thusly:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The US contends that it is compliant and goes on to cite various claims:

Article 17 of the Covenant provides, in relevant part, that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation.” For reasons described in this response, the Terrorist Surveillance Program is consistent with this article.

The US further talks about judicial overview and cites careful safeguards that are in place to ensure it only monitors suspected terrorists, as well as examples of rulings that are only tangentially connected. The US argument fails to address the basic issue: that the FISA court was completely bypassed.

The Geneva hearings on this question went much the same way, with the US pointing to the previous written response as its answer, as well as addendums added after the hearings.

Jamil Dakwar, a staff attorney with the Human Rights Program – National Legal Department of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who was present at the hearings as part of the NGO delegation, said he could only describe the interplay “as a dialogue of deaf.”

The Report

The Human Rights Committee’s final report clearly supports the NGO findings, presenting issues of concern and indicating how those issues violate the ICCPR and CAT. The report also prescribes remedies by which the United States can become compliant with its treaty obligations, something that many human rights advocates are not optimistic about.

“The US ratified only three human rights treaties out of seven major human rights treaties. In fact, the US and Somalia are the only two countries in the world that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child – and Somalia does not have a functional government!” said Jamil Dakwar.

“Judging from the lack of domestic application of human rights law, and from the gap between human rights law and US law in many areas, we can certainly say that the US government had never taken its human rights treaty obligations seriously,” he added.

Setting the tone for the relationship between a frustrated Committee and a seemingly discourteous and defiant super power, the Committee’s report delivers an opening salvo, stating on page 1:

“The Committee regrets that the State party has not integrated into its reports information on the implementation of the Covenant in respect of individuals under its jurisdiction and outside its territory. The Committee notes however that the State party has provided additional material ‘out of courtesy’. The Committee further regrets that the State party, invoking grounds of non-applicability of the Covenant or intelligence operations, refused to address certain serious allegations of violations of the rights protected under the Covenant.”

The Report covers issues that quite simply read like the US Bill of Rights – citing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to life, and the right to due process – and focuses on issues extending well into the rest of the US Constitution, including voting rights and so forth.

For example, the Human Rights Committee report cites the Patriot Act as a major concern several times, including:

“The Committee, while noting some positive amendments introduced in 2006, notes that section 213 of the Patriot Act, expanding the possibility of delayed notification of home and office searches; section 215 regarding access to individuals’ personal records and belongings; and section 505, relating to the issuance of national security letters, still raise issues of concern in relation to article 17 of the Covenant. In particular, the Committee is concerned about the restricted possibilities for the affected persons to be informed about such measures and for them and recipients to effectively challenge them. Furthermore, the Committee is concerned that the State Party, including through the National Security Agency (NSA), has monitored and still monitors phone, email, and fax communications of individuals both within and outside the U.S., without any judicial or other independent oversight. (articles 2(3) and 17). (page 6, point 21).

The report also expresses concern about the clear correlation between race and poverty in America:

“The Committee is concerned by reports that some 50 % of homeless people are African American although they constitute only 12 % of the U.S. population. (articles 2 and 26).” (page 7, point 22.).

The report goes on to express concern about the large number of undocumented workers within the US borders – and what appears to be a military solution to the issue. It also emphasizes, both here and repeatedly in other sections, that the US has not provided adequate information:

“The Committee regrets that it has not received sufficient information on the measures the State party envisages adopting in relation to the reportedly nine million undocumented migrants now in the United States of America. While noting the information provided by the delegation that National Guard troops will not engage in direct law enforcement duties in the apprehension or detention of aliens, the Committee remains concern about the increased level of militarization on the southwest border with Mexico. (articles 12 and 26).” (page 8, point 27).

The Committee's questions, hearings, and the report all indicate that the international community is well aware of US law, Constitutional issues, and domestic policies that are in clear violation of the ICCPR, CAT, and State law.

‘Political cost’

The head of the US delegation to the Geneva hearings was Matthew Waxman, Principal Deputy Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State. Waxman, who previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, and before that as Director of Security & Justice Affairs in the Washington office of the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority, was joined by other key State Department officials and legal experts.

In his opening address at the hearings, Deputy Director Waxman cited the attacks of September 11, 2001, setting the tone for his subsequent answers to questions that the committee raised with regard to domestic detainment and interrogation of terrorist suspects and programs that have been implemented in response:

“First, the United States is engaged in a real, not rhetorical, armed conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliates and supporters, as noted in multiple declaration by al Qaeda in the 1990’s and as reflected in al Qaeda’s heinous attack on September 11, 2001, an attack that killed more than 3000 innocent civilians. It is important to clarify the distinction we draw between the struggle in which all countries are engaged in a 'global war on terrorism' and the legal meaning of our nation’s armed conflict with al Qaeda, its affiliates and supporters.”

At a media roundtable on July 17, Waxman touted the human rights record of the US with great vigor.

“Indeed, few countries in the world could claim greater protections of, for example, speech, press, association or religion than the United States. The United States also historically promotes these same values around the world and continues to do so as part of the President’s Freedom Agenda,” Waxman said.

Facts provided by the US NGO delegation – which numbers 65 citizen delegates, the largest ever NGO delegation for any State – do not support the position of Waxman and the official US delegation.

Additionally, many of the policies criticized in the report have resisted legislative attempts at correction. President Bush has bypassed corrective measures by issuing more than 700 signing statements.

When asked why the US continues to be a signatory to international human rights treaties if it has no intention of taking seriously its obligations under those treaties, Lisa Crooms, Constitutional and international law professor at the Howard University School of Law, opined that the US wishes to “maintain some semblance of being a human rights protector.”

“The political cost of opting out would be too great. It is easier to claim to be bound and not really be bound,” she added.


Report PDF

US Response to questions

Other relevant documents

ICCPR Treaty

Related articles:

'Shadow' human rights report to accuse United States of violating international human rights treaties

Treatment of US suspects at home mirrors that of terror suspects in military custody

Video shows Ghraib-like torture by sheriffs lead to man's death, say groups, family

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