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The U.S. as UN Punching Bag

Nina Shea

Last Friday, for the first time, the Obama administration put the U.S.’s human-rights record up for questioning and critique under the U.N. Human Rights Council’s “universal periodic review.” The delegation defending the U.S. in Geneva was led by the State Department’s legal adviser Harold Koh, two assistant secretaries of state, and no fewer than 30 representatives from the Departments of Justice, Labor, Defense, and Homeland Security and other agencies. In introducing the report, as the Washington Post wrote,

U.S. officials acknowledged the country’s long history of rights abuses. They noted that the administration’s top advisers, who include an American Jew, an African American and an Asian American, could not have risen so high in the U.S. government in the past.

This is more or less the line of argument throughout the report: Like every country, the U.S. is an “imperfect” human-rights violator, but we’re not as bad now that the Obama administration has signed into law the Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Fair Sentencing Act (which eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine), and so forth. The U.S. UPR is to occur every four years. The idea behind it, as the State Department explains, is “that governments’ records should be scrutinized, discussed, and debated by other governments, civil society, human rights defenders, a free press, and their own citizenry.” But wait, that happens every day in America. So, why did we enter into this charade? The State Department’s logic is that, if we provide an example at the U.N., other governments that don’t tolerate criticism will be encouraged to follow.

But apparently, some of those nations didn’t enter into this with the right spirit. The Post noted: “Several delegations camped out overnight to be first in line to criticize Washington, with the initial few speakers including Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela.”

Selected by the body to draw up final instructions for the U.S. on how to improve: the government of Cameroon, the tiny West African country that ranks at the bottom of the “Not Free” category in Freedom House’s assessments for both political rights and civil liberties. Cameroon is probably better qualified than some other council members — for example Saudi Arabia, which this week will be in charge of drafting human-rights recommendations for Greece.

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