The Obama administration, emerging as a strong voice on international human rights issues within the UN, has submitted its first appraisal of the US’s own human rights record, admitting to gaps in social and economic areas, pledging to push ratification of international rights conventions that have lingered in limbo in Washington and recognizing that the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have become a defining issue of the era.
The administration was responding to a requirement of the four-year-old Human Rights Council that every member of the UN must submit to a review of its human rights practices and obligations under national and international agreements once every four years. The process, called the universal periodic review—known in UN shorthand as the UPR—gives each national government the chance to review itself first, to which the assessments of outsiders are later added. The twenty-nine-page report, prepared by the State Department and submitted on August 20 to Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, contains a sweeping overview of diverse current American human rights issues from immigration to housing and healthcare.
In part, it focused on problems faced by Indian and Alaska Native communities, listing as a priority confronting domestic violence, violence against women and other crimes on tribal lands. The report also stated that Attorney General Eric Holder had introduced new measures to improve law enforcement, and created a new position, the National Indian Country Training Coordinator, who will work with prosecutors and law enforcement officers in tribal communities.
The report also mentions concerns about the treatment of minorities, including Arab-Americans and people of South Asia descent.
Turning to conditions in American prisons—a frequent topic of international criticism—the report acknowledges that "many in civil society continue to raise concerns about our nation’s criminal justice system at federal and state levels, including in the areas of capital punishment, juvenile justice, racial profiling, and racial disparities in sentencing." On the issue of sexual abuse within prisons, the report discusses the Department of Justice’s efforts to develop "comprehensive regulations to effectively reduce rape in our nation’s prisons."
In dealing with global issues, the report reaffirms the president’s intention to close the Guantánamo detention center, but gave no definitive schedule, pending decisions on the detainees remaining there. The US report says that the administration "has expressly acknowledged that international law informs the scope of our detention authority," but at the same time has made clear that it has "a national security interest in prosecuting terrorists." The report’s suggestion that military commissions are still in the US mix for dealing with detainees brought immediate criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union took the administration to task for defending the use of commissions "despite fact that military commissions pose significant human and civil rights violations."
In another statement of great interest outside the United States, the administration said it would comply with international obligations to provide consular access to foreigners in American custody. Specifically, in a break with past practice, the Obama administration said that it will abide by a 2004 decision of the International Court of Justice that held US authorities had violated the rights of Mexicans arrested in the United States by denying them contact with Mexican officials.