Several days ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group conducted a state-level review of human rights within the United States. Making for a rather lively scene, representatives from 122 nations spoke at a meeting to offer criticism and suggestions pertaining to the myriad human rights issues affecting the United States. In fact, human rights problems within the U.S. have been a focal point of the international human rights community in recent years. Just in 2014, U.N. human rights treaty bodies, such as the U.N. Human Rights Committee, personnel within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other human rights organizations, and special reporters, expressed concern about the U.S. human rights situation.
The problems that the international community has identified and raised for discussion touch upon a broad swathe of topics, including the level of gun-related violence, abusive cruelty on the part of law enforcement officers, poor detainment conditions for death row inmates, racial profiling and monitoring of minorities, a racial disparity in the application of the death penalty, a lack of transparency or legal basis for the use of unmanned drones in international anti-terrorism operations, the tapping of both domestic and foreign telecommunications through PRISM and other programs, and failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, among others.
But despite facing so much disapprobation and doubt, the U.S. government has never taken such calls to action seriously. For one, its stance on certain issues is that of outright rejection. For example, during the first U.N. Human Rights Committee universal periodic review of the United States on Nov. 5, 2010, the number of suggestions offered reached a record-breaking 228 items, primarily relating to the ratification of core international human rights treaties, the rights of minority groups and indigenous peoples, racial discrimination and Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. government rejected 55 of these items, only accepting or partially accepting the remaining 173.
Furthermore, in certain areas where it has agreed to improve, the U.S. government has not made good on its promises. For example, in 2011 following the universal periodic review of human rights in the United States, the U.S. delegation promised to abide by international law in its fight against terrorism, close the Guantanamo detention camp and keep the ratification process moving for U.N. human rights treaties. But to this day, the United States has still not closed Guantanamo, still commits serious human rights violations in its “war on terror” and has not made efforts to facilitate the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other core U.N. human rights treaties.
America’s obfuscation and discounting of its shortcomings in human rights have already brought on a plethora of derivative problems. An archetypal example is the discrimination toward minority groups within the U.S. that has led to increasingly strained racial tensions. A recent survey conducted by the U.S. media showed that 62 percent of whites and 65 percent of blacks believe that race relations within the U.S. have grown worse on average, the first time since 1997 that a majority of whites and blacks have simultaneously felt this way. The excessive use of violence by U.S. police in enforcing the law has already incited several large-scale waves of protests throughout the country.
The U.S. government not only cannot face up to its own human rights issues, but to the contrary has dubbed itself a “defender of human rights,” criticizing the state of human rights in other nations through its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Such arrogant hypocrisy has long drawn the ire of other nations, as well as international human rights organizations and NGOs. Therefore, the eager clamor at this year’s U.N. Human Rights Committee universal periodic review of the United States came as no surprise. The international community will now wait and see how the United States will react to the human rights review. As one figure in the U.S. human rights community asked: “Will President Obama be remembered as a leader who approved secret kill-lists, institutionalized the use of indefinite detention, and failed to end unlawful surveillance practices? Or will the president endorse accountability for torture and provide an apology and reparations for victims … [and] stand on the right side of history?”
The author is vice director of Nankai University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights and a vice-dean and professor at Nankai University’s Zhou Enlai School of Government.