The Mirror Turns

The Mirror Turns

UN Human Rights Committee says America is anything but the land of the free

By Kevin Uhrich 04/08/2014

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Despite our government’s many military entanglements and abuses of authority at home, most Americans still maintain a pretty high opinion of their country and the way it treats its people and others around the world. 
  
Unfortunately, the unquestioning zeal regularly expressed for “our way of life” by cheerleading media personalities and politicians isn’t something that’s universally shared, according to a recent report issued by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Whereas it is usually the United States that stands in judgment of other countries, and has traditionally used the UN to justify the wars it’s waged since the Korean Conflict, the script has been flipped in this case, with America now being portrayed as a bully and a villain, not only abroad, but at home as well. 

“The committee’s recommendations highlight the gaps between US human rights obligations and current laws and practices,” said ACLU Human Rights Program Director Jamil Dakwar in a statement issued last week by the organization’s national office. “The Human Rights Committee rightly called out the United States for setting dangerous examples from counterterrorism operations to an unfair criminal justice system to inhumane treatment of migrants.”

Local reactions to the report released on March 27 were no less critical of the United States, as well as the American media, few of which gave much play to the committee’s findings.

“It is shocking that media in Los Angeles — print, broadcast and social — have nearly entirely ignored what can only be called a factual but nevertheless horrifying, detailed indictment of violations of human rights in our country,” said local civil rights activist Marvin Schachter. Schachter is a longtime member of the ACLU, both its Southern California and Pasadena Foothills chapters. He is also a member of the Pasadena United Nations Association.
 
“Of course, we have made progress,” Schachter noted in an email written to the Pasadena Weekly after reading the report. “Step by step, struggle by struggle, we have removed barriers, but the United Nations report reminds us of the progress that still must be made.”

A lengthy list
The 29-page document concluded that the United States has some serious problems to overcome on a number of domestic fronts. Among them: 

* The increasing criminalization of homeless people
* Racial disparities in education and the criminal justice system
* Racial profiling 
* Use of the death penalty and solitary confinement
* Excessive use of force by law enforcement
* Gun violence and “Stand Your Ground” laws
* Immigration abuses, including extended detentions of suspected undocumented immigrants without legal representation, as well as shooting deaths at the border
* Corporal punishment of children in schools, penal institutions and the home
* Domestic violence
* Domestic spying by the National Security Agency
* Human trafficking and sexual exploitation
* Non-consensual psychiatric treatment of people suffering with mental illness
* Voting rights violations
* Violation of the rights of indigenous people

In its critique of US immigration policies, the committee noted that mandatory detention of undocumented immigrants may be a breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a major human rights treaty which the US signed in 1977 and ratified in 1992 but has mostly ignored over all these years.
 
The committee, the report states, “is also concerned about the mandatory nature of the deportation of foreigners without regard to elements such as the seriousness of crimes and misdemeanors committed, the length of lawful stay in the US, health status, family ties and the fate of spouses and children staying behind, or the humanitarian situation in the country of destination.”

Finally, the committee “expresses concerns about the exclusion of millions of undocumented immigrants and their children from coverage under the Affordable Care Act and the limited coverage of undocumented immigrants and immigrants residing lawfully in the US for less than five years by Medicare and Children Health Insurance, all resulting in difficulties in access of immigrants to adequate health care.”

According to the committee, the United States should “review its policies regarding mandatory detention and deportation of certain categories of immigrants in order to allow for individualized decisions, to take measures ensuring that affected persons have access to legal representation, and to identify ways to facilitate access of undocumented immigrants and immigrants residing lawfully in the US for less than five years and their families to adequate health care, including reproductive health care services.”

Polo Morales, political director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), said the country’s current immigration policies — which criminalize people even further through ever-increasing penalties and programs such as Secure Communities, in which the Sheriff’s Department turns over fingerprints of suspected undocumented people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which then uses that information for either prosecutions or fast-tracked deportations — are lacking in basic humanity.
 
“This is something that is starting to impact a lot more folks, because when you increase the deportation of people who have been here for 10 or 20 years and you separate them from their families, their first inclination is going to be, ‘How do I get back to my family?’” Morales said.
 
“What we are starting to see is a lot of folks who are being picked up in the border areas who are trying to get back with their families. So not only do they get deported a second time, if they are caught, they also spend time in detention centers and sometimes in jail and in prison,” Morales said. “So that is just increasing the number of people who are getting caught up in the system.”

Standing alone
The committee — comprised of one American, and one British representative serving as chair, with other members hailing from France, Algeria, Egypt, The Netherlands, Japan, Switzerland, South Africa, Romania, Costa Rica, Argentina, Germany, Israel, Georgia, Suriname and Mauritius — also turned a collective critical eye toward America’s role overseas. 

The report condemns targeted killings of alleged terrorists with drones and the ongoing detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The committee also called on the United States to acknowledge and address human rights violations it’s previously been accused of committing in the War on Terror.
 
“The Committee,” states an advance unedited copy of its report, “is concerned at the limited number of investigations, prosecutions and convictions of members of the Armed Forces and other agents of the US Government, including private contractors, for unlawful killings in its international operations and the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in US custody, including outside its territory, as part of the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ program.”

While welcoming a presidential Executive Order in 2009 terminating secret detention and interrogation operated by the CIA, “the Committee notes with concern that all reported investigations into enforced disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that had been committed in the context of the CIA secret rendition, interrogation and detention programmes were closed in 2012 leading only to a meagre number of criminal charges brought against low-level operatives. The Committee is concerned that many details of the CIA programme remain secret thereby creating barriers to accountability and redress for victims.”

In a separate but related development last week, The Associated Press reported that the White House instructed its intelligence officials to cooperate with the US Senate Intelligence Committee, which voted to release parts of a secret report that criticizes CIA interrogation techniques. The Senate committee, which has been sparring with the CIA over release of the report, is expected to see 500 pages of the 6300-page document. Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said, “The report exposes brutality that stands in sharp contrast to our values as a nation,” reported The AP. “It chronicles a stain on our history that must never be allowed to happen again. This is not what Americans do.”

But perhaps the biggest criticism leveled against the US was over standing outside the jurisdiction of the world governing body. 
 
“The Committee regrets that the State party [the US] continues to maintain its position that the Covenant does not apply with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory, despite the contrary interpretation of article 2(1) supported by the Committee’s established jurisprudence, the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice and state practice,” the report states.
 
The committee’s final report, based on its Observational Conclusions which include detailed recommendations to increase transparency and accountability for maintaining human rights at home and abroad, is due to be released sometime this month.

Right or wrong
“President Obama now has an opportunity to reverse course and reshape his human rights legacy by taking concrete actions like declassifying the Senate report on CIA torture and ending dragnet surveillance and unlawful targeted killings,” said Dakwar, who attended the two–week session in Geneva.
 
“If we are identified by the world, by the UN, as having these really deep problems with detention and folks being separated from their families who are then penalized for coming back in and trying to be with their families, people who were here for 10 or 20 years selling hot dogs on the street as the primary breadwinner, there is obviously something wrong with that,” Morales said. 
 
“I think the UN report really points to the fact that there is something wrong that can be fixed. The US has the creativity and ingenuity to put our moral compass back on track and we can work on these types of detrimental systems that are in place and really create something that takes humanity into consideration.”
 
“Perhaps,” said Schachter, “this is a time to remember the definition of patriotism by a Civil War general: ‘My country, right or wrong. When it is right, keep it right. When it is wrong, make it right.” 

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