The United States gets reviewed

This week in Geneva, representatives of the United States will stand before dozens of other countries and defend the country’s human rights record. The process — called the Universal Periodic Review — was one of the key innovations in the 2006 reform of the U.N.’s human rights apparatus. All U.N. member states must be reviewed ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

This week in Geneva, representatives of the United States will stand before dozens of other countries and defend the country's human rights record.

This week in Geneva, representatives of the United States will stand before dozens of other countries and defend the country’s human rights record.

The process — called the Universal Periodic Review — was one of the key innovations in the 2006 reform of the U.N.’s human rights apparatus. All U.N. member states must be reviewed every four years. The process "provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries  and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights." To prepare for the process, Obama administration officials criscrossed the country to hear concerns about a variety of issues, including immigration, detention policy, unemployment, and urban poverty. That consultative process resulted in a twenty page report on human rights compliance that the U.S. submitted to the Human Rights Council in August (it got most attention for including reference to the controversial Arizona immgration law).

If one wanted to design a process to enrage American exceptionalists, you couldn’t do much better. In Geneva this week, representatives from plenty of autocratic and brutal regimes will be free to question U.S. practices and policies. For its part, Iran has already signaled that it is "seriously concerned" about the American human rights record. Far from minimizing the exposure, the administration appears set on maximizing it. American officials, including assistant secretary of state Esther Brimmer and State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, will hold a townhall meeting with NGOs and the media after the formal session to field additional questions, complaints, and concerns.

There is predictable reaction from some quarters. "This is the sort of nonsense America will have to endure thanks to the Obama administration’s decision last year to join the Human Rights Council," editorialized the Investors’ Business Daily. But in terms of public relations, the United States can only benefit from this kind of process. Certain regimes and interests will undoubtedly scour the proceedings for stones that can be hurled at the United States. But what will they find that they can’t readily cherry-pick from vigorous U.S. debates about controversial topics such as immigration and detention? The United States, on the other hand, gets from the process the opportunity to publicly question regimes that almost never open themselves up to official scrutiny.

A deeper critique is that, for all their talk of frankness and candor, the United States isn’t engaging in a genuine review of American policies. Officials I’ve spoken with won’t say that any U.S. policies will change as a result of the process, and they don’t concede that the United States is currently violating any of its human rights obligations. They talk instead obliquely of "challenges" that the United States faces. "In every area, there’s room for improvement, but there’s a lot to be proud of," says Suzanne Nossel, a deputy assistant secretary of state working on the process. The official U.S. submission is a mix of quotes from Obama and Clinton speeches, boilerplate American history, plugs for recent administration legislative achievements (the health care bill is discussed in detail), and sanitized discussion of certain current issues. Certain hot-button issues, including targeted assassination and drone strikes, aren’t touched at all.

At one level, this is utterly unsurprising; the inter-agency discussions over what to include in the report and what wording to use must have been vigorous. But it does beg the fundamental question of whether the United States sees itself as a country that has things to learn from the international human rights movement, or whether it is fully in export mode. The current engagement strategy is smart public relations; whether it is — or should be — anything beyond that is not clear.    

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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