On Its Own Human Rights Record, US Often Says ‘No’

Washington, DC (HRW) – In a dry document, quietly posted Tuesday to a United States State Department website, the US rattled down a list of issues that it didn’t consider to be its human rights obligations.

Commit to opening new investigations of Central Intelligence Agency officials involved in torture? The US said no. Compensating the families of migrants killed by Customs and Border Protection? No. Protecting children from having to work in dangerous conditions on farms? No. Ending life without parole sentences for non-violent crimes? No again.

The occasion for this panoply of rejections was the US response to its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), held in May, where the US rights record was scrutinized by its peers at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Every UN member country goes through a review process every four years. The council had made 343 recommendations, including duplicates, to the US; Tuesday’s document was its response.

Some of the rejections weren’t surprising. Thirty countries recommended that the United States abolish its death penalty. The US outright rejected this one – presumably based on its claim that it cannot act at the state level, where most death sentences are handed down, though that doesn’t address the US unwillingness to abolish the federal death penalty. In a more narrow recommendation, France recommended that the United States “commit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Here the US also said no.

There were a few significant positive responses. The United States accepted two recommendations to look into racial and ethnic disparities in application of the death penalty (though it committed to do the same during the last UPR cycle – without result.) Also, the United States expressed support for legislation to end sentencing children to life without parole at the federal level. They agreed to “invest further efforts in addressing the root causes of recent racial incidents.” The United States even accepted a recommendation to “eliminate gun violence” and expressed support for expanded background checks for firearm transfers.

The US, however, missed the opportunity to address some other key gaps in its human rights record. The government refused to interpret US law to ensure that foreign aid could help women and girls raped and impregnated during wartime access safe abortions and counseling, if they want it – as we have called for in the past.

And when the United States agreed with a recommendation, it often undercut it. When Brazil recommended that US surveillance policies comply with international human rights law “regardless of the nationality or location of those affected,” the US only partially accepted this recommendation, stating that this responsibility only applies to individuals within US territory and subject to US jurisdiction.

Image Source: University of Essex, Flickr, Creative Commons Human Rights Day - chalking of the steps Students write out the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the steps at the Colchester Campus

Image Source: University of Essex, Flickr, Creative Commons
Human Rights Day – chalking of the steps
Students write out the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the steps at the Colchester Campus

The United States holds itself out as a “strong supporter” of the UPR process, since it “provides a unique avenue for the global community to discuss human rights around the world.” For many important domestic human rights issues, the US response to this most recent UPR served as more of a dismissal than a discussion.

Prepared by Antonio Ginatta for Human Rights Watch.