America’s Human Rights Record Challenged As UN Review Looms
On Monday, the United States Human Rights Network held its National Day of Action for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in recognition of the United States’ upcoming ICCPR review before the United Nations in October. In light of recent activities — including the repeal of Title V of the Voting Rights Act, drone bombing on international targets without a declaration of war, electronic surveillance abroad and at home and the continuing occurrence of police misconduct like New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy — the nation will have a lot to answer for.
The ICCPR is a binding human rights treaty that 167 countries — including the United States — entered into in 1976. The U.S. Senate ratified it into law in 1992 with five reservations, five understandings and four declarations, which, among other things, preserved the United States’ right to seek capital punishment on any duly convicted person with the exception of a pregnant woman, to recognize juvenile offenders as adults and that the terms of the treaty are not self-executing and must rely on governmental intervention to be actual. These reservations, basically, make the treaty mostly symbolic in regard to American law.
The treaty calls for signatories to institute a suite of protections to preserve basic human rights, which include the right to vote; the right to fair treatment without regard of gender or sexuality; freedom from discrimination, torture or illegal detention; freedom of speech, the right to equal treatment under the law and free assembly and freedom of and from religion. While nationally the U.S. has done little to actually enforce the treaty or even acknowledge it publicly, internationally, the U.S. is expected to respect and adhere to the agreement.
This expectation, however, cannot be enforced. The reservations, understandings and declarations established by the Senate make it if not altogether impossible, very difficult to challenge the Senate’s interpretation of the treaty in court. With the United States holding a unique position in the world — it is the host and primary funder of the United Nations and holder of a permanent veto in the Security Council, its currency represents the underpinning to the majority of the world’s currencies, it is the controlling hub of the Internet, its military has a predominant presence globally, etc. — it’s unthinkable that the international community can punitively act against the U.S. for a treaty violation, militarily or economically.
Despite this and in anticipation of the review, the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups have filed shadow reports with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in order to provide a complete reporting of the United States’ track history towards preserving human rights. The ACLU, in its report, indicated that the U.S. — since the last review was done in 2006 — has made marked improvements, particularly, with LGBT rights after the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act, the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the Justice Department’s active prosecution of civil rights violations.
In other areas, the ACLU has indicated that the nation — on state and local levels, in particular — has taken major steps away from civil rights. The group pointed out that on multiple issues, the United States has failed to live up to its expectations of the international community.
Among the issues of concern are:
Anti-immigrant measures at the state and federal level
Since 2010, six states (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah) have instituted racially-motivated legislation that exposes immigrants to harassment, intimidation, punitive sanctions and general inconvenience — such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which required immigrants to carry and present upon request documentation indicating their legal status at all times at the risk of imprisonment for non-compliance.
“All of these laws have as a common focus the investigation and detention of persons who are suspected of lacking the required authorization to live or work in the United States,” the report read. “The bills also share the common problem of having no standards to guide law enforcement personnel in assessing whether there is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a person is an undocumented immigrant, leaving many officers no choice but to resort to racial and ethnic profiling as tools of law enforcement, even where the bills include blanket prohibitions against such practices. Because all of these bills rely on state and local police to make a preliminary assessment of whether an individual may be unauthorized, they are inviting profiling based upon perceived race, nationality, and language proficiency, as there is no way to tell by looking at or listening to a person whether they are in the U.S. with or without lawful status.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court overturned much of the provisions of the states’ anti-immigrant laws, permitted provisions — such as the allowed use of state and local police officers to demand proof of immigration status if they have “reasonable suspicion,” and federal policies like the Department of Homeland Security’s “Secure Communities” program that allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enter into agreements with local and state police departments toward the use of local authority to enforce immigration laws — create a situation in which under-trained personnel are enforcing national entry law with no oversight or accountability.
U.S.-Mexico border killings and the militarization of the border
The United States’ use of enforcement-only addressing of ‘illegal’ migration, including the manning of militarized guards at the border with a total presence in excess of 38,000 or one border guard per every 270 feet of border, the establishment of a state-of-the-art 700 mile-long border fence and the establishment of heavy military equipment to patrol the border — including manned and unmanned aerial vehicles — belay the fact that apprehension about undocumented immigrants among the border cities are at or near a forty-year low. Despite this, the call to protect the border continues, leading to an increasing number of border crossing deaths — as reported in the shadow report.
In the last decade, the ACLU has reported that more than 5,600 unauthorized border crossers have died at the border, crossers’ property have been arbitrarily searched and seized, recordings of arrests by enforcement officers have been suppressed or “lost” and widespread abuse have occurred under Border Patrol custody. Many of those victimized were lawful permanent residents of the United States or United States citizens who were racially profiled. Since January 2010, at least 19 people have died due to alleged excessive use of force by the border patrol.
Among the listed examples of use of force included Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, aged 16, who was shot eleven times — seven times in the back — by a border patrol agent in 2012. The initial claim for use of force was that Rodriguez was throwing rocks over the fence. This has since been refuted.
Despite promises to improve the transparency of its targeted killing program, so far disclosures about the nature of the operation have come out coincidentally — typically, in response to a leak of classified information. The Obama administration’s May 2013 “Presidential Policy Guideline” — while externally appearing to encourage restraint in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for the purposes of target elimination — actually begged more questions than it answered.
The guidelines called for the use of lethal force only against “continuing, imminent” threats to the American people, breaking the president’s prerogative to use force in defense of an ally. The nationality of targets must be ascertained before the strike is to be conducted and there must be a “near-certainty” that civilian bystanders will not be injured or killed. Ambiguity about what are “continuing, imminent” threats and what the administration means by “near-certainty,” however, mitigated the effectiveness of these guidelines, leaving the U.S. government’s targeted killing policies virtually intact.
Beside this, the U.S. use of targeted killing is illegal according to international law. “[The] rules do nothing to address the fundamental problem with U.S. targeted killing policy: the standards it is using violate international human rights law, which prohibits use of lethal force outside of armed conflict unless it is a last resort, used against a specific, concrete, and imminent threat,” the shadow report reads. “That concern is heightened by the U.S. government’s novel interpretations of human rights law. For example, according to the white paper, the U.S. government claims the authority to use lethal force against an individual who constitutes a ‘continuing, imminent threat’—as the government defines ‘imminence,’ it need not even have clear evidence that the threat involves a concrete and known plot.”
The report continues:
“If true, the government’s elastic definition of ‘imminence’ is a clear departure from international standards, and from plain English. Additionally, though the Presidential Policy Guidance states that the government will conduct targeted killings only where capture is not feasible and no reasonable alternatives to the use of lethal force exist, the document contains no explanation of what those purported constraints mean in practice. In short, while we appreciate these efforts to explain U.S. government policy standards to the public, those explanations provoke more concerns and questions than provide answers, and do nothing to inspire confidence that the U.S. government is adhering to its international legal obligations.”
A call to lead by example
The report goes on to list additional claims of human rights violation against the United States — including labor trafficking of domestic workers employed by diplomats, lack of remedies for female victims and survivors of domestic violence, excessive use of solitary confinement, continued implementation of the death penalty, lack of accountability for torture and abuse during the Bush administration, and widespread NSA surveillance. Charges presented in other shadow reports include the failure to secure the right to equitable education, the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women, felon voting disenfranchisement, religious freedom of prisoners belonging to indigenous communities, failure to protect reproductive rights, failure to prevent racial repression and failure to ensure fair access to medical care.
While these allegations represent the nation’s deficit toward protecting human rights, the shadow letters or the review they seek to influence carry the weight to impose real change on the United States. “[Why] are there no sanctions against the U.S.? Why are no U.S. leaders—past or present—currently occupying prison cells or awaiting trial?,” mused Richard Becker for Global Research. “The answer is that the international ‘justice’ system operates much like the domestic one. The rich administer punishment on the poor. The notion of ‘equal justice before the law’ is as mythical internationally as it is domestically. Who ends up in prison or under sanctions has nothing to do with real justice and everything to do with real power.”
However, in 2009, the president told the U.N. General Assembly: “The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future does not belong to fear.”
Maybe, while the October review cannot count as a rebuke, it can serve as a reminder of the distance that lies between what America says it is and what it shows itself to be. Perhaps it can serve as an incentive toward America becoming the champion of human rights it imagines itself to be.
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