Friday, November 5, 2010

Reviewing human rights in the United States

For the first time ever, the human rights record of the United States has been reviewed by the United Nations' Human Rights Council. This took place as part of the new "Universal Periodic Review" instituted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, which reviews all UN member states once every 4 years.

As the Washington Post reports, the delegations of several other states camped out overnight to be first in line to criticize U.S. policies. Among these were representatives of Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. The hearing today was based on a report submitted by the Obama administration back in August.

As one might expect, a good deal of the criticism focused on detention policies and torture allegations in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. As one might expect, too, much of the criticism was also rather self-serving and disingenuous. As Germany's envoy, Konrad Scharinger archly noted (quoted in the Washington Post article): "We have noted with interest that some of states which are on the first places of today's speakers list had spared no effort to be the first to speak on the U.S. We would hope that those states will show the same level of commitment when it comes to improving their human rights record at home."

Inevitable politicking aside, the UN's universal review is a valuable initiative, in that it forces all states, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, to give an official account of their policies. And however much they will deny, dissemble, and distort their own policies, they will nevertheless produce a public document to which they can be held accountable. As Daniel Thomas shows in the wonderful The Helsinki Effect, such small beginnings may pay unexpectedly large dividends down the line for oppressed groups in such countries.

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