Notes on the UN’s Periodic Review of Human Rights in the United States

Notes by Chris Lawson for Lewes Amnesty International Group, 10.11.20

The UPR is a barometer of views on human rights of countries on each other. It has no legal authority. It provides, however, an indication of international opinion. It is perhaps remarkable that almost all countries are willing to engage with the process and go through the preliminary work of self-assessment and facilitating publication of comment from non-governmental organisations. Recommendations at the end of the process are considered and accepted or not.

After all the advance paperwork, the actual hearing on the USA was made to fit a standard pattern with limited times for speeches. With 116 countries having asked to speak, each was given 55 secs only, mainly of put recommendations. Iran was not the only to be cut short. It was hard trying to keep up, but here is my tally of the focus of recommendations (with approximate number of countries mentioning them):

  • Racism, discrimination and xenophobia (41)
  • The death penalty (36)
  • Police brutality and associated issues (30)
  • General urgings to ratify or join existing HR conventions (28)
  • Rights of women and children (22)
  • The rights of migrants (inc children and families) (20)

Most of these are within Lewes Amnesty’s three current campaigning priorities on human rights in the USA: stopping executions, refugee children and police brutality. Our fourth, Guantanamo Bay, was mentioned directly by three countries and was one of the issues to which a response was given later.

Trafficking, health care (including Covid) and gun violence also got mentioned several times. Apart from hopes for US support for HR in general and for the HRC itself, there were several specific mentions of the Paris Climate agreement, co-operation with the ICC and foreign aid for abortion programmes. Political points were made by Iran on US involvements in its country’s affairs, by Russia on respect for self-determination and by the Marshall Islands on redress for nuclear testing. All of the recommendations will be published and the USA will be expected to indicate which of them it accepts or rejects.

In introductory speeches from various people in key departments, the spokespersons for the USA affirmed their commitment to human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and how it was deeply embedded in their constitution and practices. The autonomy of States within the USA in some legal areas was noted, however. The balancing of freedom of speech with stopping hate crimes and maintaining good order in the community was referred to.

Two rounds of responses during the session (some pre-recorded) re-iterated some of the actions and attitudes of the USA and the Attorney General for Utah gave detailed information about ways in which his state had been working on HR issues. The problem of illegal immigration and asylum claiming was acknowledged as a major one, with over one million cases awaiting decisions. Nonetheless the USA needed to take threats from outside its borders seriously and act accordingly.

Issues relating to policing were acknowledged and the loss of confidence in some communities following the George Floyd episode. Investigations of police misconduct and training of police over alternatives to the use of force were said to be being pursued vigorously. The reasoning behind the involvement of military units in civil situations was given. Noting concerns over Guantanamo Bay, assurances were given about the conditions in the centre and access to legal processes. As in earlier presentations the USA’s concern for its indigenous peoples and their cultures was mentioned as one of the country’s commitments to human rights. Support for sexual health services in general was affirmed but it was stated that the USA rejected abortion as a human right. It was also stated that the ICC’s jurisdiction over the USA had never been accepted. The final remarks included hopes that dialogue over human rights and with the HRC would improve.

There were no comments on how policies might change with the change of President, but the role of Congress and the Senate in the USA’s system of government was explained in relation to acceptance of HR Treaties in general.

This was only the third time that I have followed a hearing. My Amnesty Group in Minehead campaigned on Equatorial Guinea. When we watched that one 10 or so years ago we realised that the willingness of one state to be critical of another was tempered by knowing that the same comments might be made back to you when it was your turn – African countries in particular were hesitant to criticise one another too sharply.

Last week I watched the hearing on Malawi, a country where I worked in the 1960s. Last year there had been a change of government, following an election the results of which had been overturned by the courts, so the new Minister of Justice (in Geneva in person) could be full of good intentions and indeed gave many details of actions taken. I was interested that the problem of discrimination against people with albinism was raised by several African countries.

This was an issue about which Amnesty had campaigned in recent years. It seems to me, that it is the overall process of the UPR, the gathering of reports, making them public for assessment on the global level, getting the viewpoints of different countries and the responses of the country under review, that build in providing a picture of human rights in each country and its attitudes towards them on which further campaigning for improvements can be based. In an imperfect world it is good this process exists.

The video recording of the session about the USA can be found at review/6208416196001/

Advance papers and (in due course) the recommendations and final report are available through the UPR website