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Now, US named and shamed for HR violations

2014 Mar 18

... some abuses as old as America itself

The US spearheading a resolution against Sri Lanka at the ongoing UNHRC session in Geneva drew heavy flak on Thursday for grave human rights abuses.

The US was accused of systematic human rights violations both on its soil and abroad.

The Guardian has revealed that the US was censured on March 13, at the beginning of a two-day examination of the US human rights record by the UNˆHuman Rights Committee consisting of 18 members responsible for the investigation. The investigation has dealt with a long list of human rights abuses including detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, target killings as well as clandestine surveillance operations undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Expressing its serious concerns over the US rights record, the expert committee asserted that its concerns related to faultlines as old as America itself, such as guns and race, according to The Guardian.

The US has moved two successful resolutions against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013 at the UNHRC. The Guardian quoted the head of the US delegation, Mary McLeod, Principal Deputy Legal Advisor as having said: "While we are certainly not perfect, our network of federal, state and local institutions provide checks on government...Since the founding of our country, in every generation there have been Americans who sought to realise our constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and justice for all."

McLeod is quoted as having said that Obama is working to reduce the number of detainees in Guantánamo; drone strikes are conducted "in compliance with international law" and the NSA is under "substantial oversight" by other parts of government. The administration was taking measures to reduce disparities in racial sentencing and profiling, and the death penalty was steadily declining in the 32 states that still practiced it.

However, the US failed to respond to specific issues raised by the UN committee, particularly the failure on the part of Obama administration to prosecute any of the officials responsible for permitting waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation" techniques under the previous administration.

Walter Kälin, a Swiss international human rights lawyer, who sits on the committee, lambasted the US for refusing to recognise the convention’s mandate over its actions beyond its own borders. The move, Kalin pointed out was taken after 9/11 as a way of evading international scrutiny over Guantánamo and other "extra-territorial" measures of dubious standing in international law.

The Swiss national was quoted as having said: "This world is an unsafe place," Kälin said. "Will it not become even more dangerous if any state would be willing to claim that international law does not prevent them from committing human rights violations abroad?"

Kälin expressed shock at some of America’s more extreme domestic habits. Referring to the release this week in Louisiana of Glenn Ford, the 144th person on death row in the US to be exonerated since 1973, Kalin said: "One hundred and forty-four cases of people wrongfully convicted to death is a staggering number."

Pointing out the disproportional representation of African Americans on death rows, he added: "Discrimination is bad, but it is absolutely unacceptable when it leads to death."

On guns, Kälin pointed to another "staggering figure" – that there are 470,000 crimes committed with firearms each year, including about 11,000 homicides. "We appreciate the position taken by President Obama on these issues. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done to curb gun violence."

Among the other issues that came under the committee’s withering gaze, according to The Guardian report were:

· the proliferation of stand-your-ground gun laws

· enduring racial disparities in the justice system, including large numbers of black prisoners serving longer sentences than whites;

· mistreatment of mentally-ill and juvenile prisoners;

· segregation in schools;

· high levels of homelessness and criminalization of homeless people;

· racial profiling by police, including the mass surveillance of Muslim communities by the New York police department.

The head of the US delegation, Mary McLeod, a senior official in the State Department, insisted that the country was "continually striving to improve". She said: "While we are certainly not perfect, our network of federal, state and local institutions provide checks on government …

The experts raised questions about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of digital communications in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations. It also intervened in this week’s dispute between the CIA and US senators by calling for declassification and release of the 6,300-page report into the Bush administration’s use of torture techniques and rendition that lay behind the current CIA-Senate dispute.

The committee is charged with upholding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a UN treaty that the US ratified in 1992. The current exercise, repeated every five years, is a purely voluntarily review, and the US will face no penalties should it choose to ignore the committee’s recommendations, which will appear in a final report in a few weeks’ time.

But, The Guardian says the US is clearly sensitive to suggestions that it fails to live up to the human rights obligations enshrined in the convention – as signalled by the large size of its delegation to Geneva this week. And as an act of public shaming, Thursday’s encounter was frequently uncomfortable for the US.

The US has come under sustained criticism for its global counter-terrorism tactics, including the use of unmanned drones to kill al-Qaida suspects, and its transfer of detainees to third countries that might practice torture, such as Algeria.

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