Turtle Bay

U.S. gets earful from Human Rights Council, courtesy of Iran, North Korea and Cuba

In an unprecedented meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday morning, the human rights record of the United States faced attack from political rivals, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Some delegations instructed staff to wait outside the building overnight in chilly weather so they could be the first in line to criticize ...

In an unprecedented meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday morning, the human rights record of the United States faced attack from political rivals, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Some delegations instructed staff to wait outside the building overnight in chilly weather so they could be the first in line to criticize Washington; Cuba earned the right to go first.

U.S. military and detention policies came under particular scrutiny. "The United States of America, since its very origin, has used force indiscriminately as the central pillar of its policy of conquest and expansionism, causing death and destruction," said Nicaragua’s envoy Carlos Robelo Raffone.

It is the first time the United States has submitted its rights record to examination by the Geneva-based rights council. Washington had not previously complied with the procedure that requires all states to allow their counterparts to grade their conduct.

At the outset of Friday morning’s meeting, a delegation of top American officials, led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Esther Brimmer, provided foreign diplomats a detailed account of American human rights shortcomings and current efforts to redress them. The response was not entirely hostile: The U.S. government also received praise from friendly countries for its willingness to accept constructive criticism.

The Obama administration has organized intensive efforts — including several town hall meetings with Muslims, Native Americans, African Americans and other minority groups — to assess the extent of domestic rights violations. In August, it presented the U.N. rights council with a 22-page report defending ongoing U.S. counter-terror efforts and documenting US abuses, including practices by federal and local police, as well as corrections and immigration officials. Today’s meeting provided the first opportunity for states to comment on the report.

"We acknowledge imperfections and injustices to discuss and debate them, and to work through democratic means to remedy them," said Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. "Our progress has not been linear, but in the story of the United States, the arc of history has bent toward justice…As our report acknowledges, though we are proud of our achievements, we are not satisfied with the status quo." 

U.S. officials also conceded that the United States has had a long legacy of rights abuses. They noted that some of the country’s highest officials, which include a Jewish American, an African American and an Asian American, could not have risen to top levels in the U.S. government in the past. "For the United States, our early years witnessed profound gaps between our ideals and practice, including slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and limited franchise," Brimmer said.

Republican administrations have previously subjected their policies on immigration, detention treatment, and a host of other human rights issues to some form of scrutiny by the United Nations and other international bodies. But the Bush Administration had refused to join the Human Rights Council, saying its membership would lend legitimacy to a body that included many governments with horrible rights records. President Obama reversed course, arguing that it would be better to improve and reform the U.N.’s principal rights body from within, rather than lecture it from the outside.

Bush’s former U.N. envoy, John Bolton, who was a vocal opponent of the U.S. joining the council, told Turtle Bay today’s action simply underscored the Obama administration’s "naivete" toward international diplomacy. "For the Obama administration, this is an exercise in self flagellation, which they seem to enjoy," Bolton said. "But it doesn’t prompt equivalent candor from the real rights abusers."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American congressman from Florida who is likely to become the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed with Bolton’s assessment. In a statement issues this afternoon, she said, "So long as the inmates are allowed to run the asylum, the Human Rights Council will continue to stand in the way of justice, not promote it. The U.S. should walk out of this rogues’ gallery and seek to build alternative forums that will actually focus on abuses and deny membership to abusers."

The United States’ most vociferous critics — Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea and Venezuela — opened the session with a series of highly critical accounts of U.S. policies from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay. They also characterized the U.S. embargo on Cuba as an act of genocide. In an effort to pack in as many attacks as possible in the two minutes allocated to each country, the delegates outlined a litany of alleged U.S. crimes at a speed that was barely intelligible. (See the presentations of Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran).

"We would like to forget the past," said Raffone, Nicaragua’s envoy, "but unfortunately the United States of America, which pretends to be the guardian of human rights in the world, questioning other countries, has been and continues to be the one which most systematically violates human rights."

The tone of the rest of the event was more restrained. China and Russia, two major powers with poor rights records but important relations with the United States, acknowledged U.S. advances in improving its rights records, citing its efforts to expand health care. But China — which has brutally repressed its own ethnic minorities — criticized U.S. law enforcement for using "excessive force against racial minorities." The vast majority of U.N. members urged the United States to institute a moratorium on the death penalty with the ultimate goal of abolishing the practice, and urged the United States to ratify a series of international treaties aimed at protecting the rights of women and children.

Germany’s envoy scolded the most vocal critics of the United States. "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.," said Germany’s delegate Konrad Scharinger. "We would hope that those states will show the same level of commitment when it comes to improving their human rights record at home."

Follow me On Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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