U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Hearings about U.S. Human Rights

As discussed in a prior post, in March 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (the Committee) issued a negative evaluation of how the United States of America (U.S.) was implementing and complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant), which is regarded as an important part of the International Bill of Rights. That prior post reviewed the background of the ICCPR and certain events preceding the Committee’s evaluation.

U.N. Human Rights Committee
           U.N. Human                Rights Committee

Now we look at the hearings that lead up to that negative evaluation. The evaluation itself will be the subject of another post.

The Committee’s Hearings[1]

On March 13 and 14, 2014, the Committee held sessions or hearings in Geneva, Switzerland regarding the U.S. report and other information.

The Committee’s questions focused on racial disparities in the criminal justice system; racial discrimination and profiling; police brutality; treatment of the homeless population; the death penalty; gun violence (including stand-your-ground laws); detention of immigrants; drone attacks; “enhanced interrogation techniques” including water boarding; National Security Agency surveillance; treatment of detainees held in Guantanamo; and transfers or renditions of detainees to third countries that practiced torture. Other covered issues were restrictions on voter registration and alleged mistreatment of mentally-ill and juvenile prisoners.

The Committee encouraged the U.S. to disclose a Senate investigative report on a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation program that reportedly involved torture. The U.S. delegation’s insistence that the NSA’s mass collection of data was lawful and subject to substantial oversight was disputed by non-governmental groups that attended the sessions.

One Committee member, Walter Kälin,[2] was especially critical in his comments and questions. Here a few of those comments:

  • He attacked the US government’s refusal to recognize the ICCPR’s mandate over its actions beyond its own borders. He said if the U.S. position were adopted universally, it would foster “impunity and lack of accountability” for human rights violations.
  • Kälin said, “One hundred and forty-four cases of people wrongfully convicted to death [in the U.S.] is a staggering number.” He pointed out the “disproportional representation of African Americans on death rows . . . ‘Discrimination is bad, but it is absolutely unacceptable when it leads to death.’”
  • Kälin pointed to another “‘staggering figure’ – that there are 470,000 crimes committed with firearms each year, including about 11,000 homicides. . . . [M]uch more needs to be done to curb gun violence.”

The Committee’s Chairperson, Sir Nigel Rodley of the United Kingdom,[3] addressed the issue of legal opinions in the George W. Bush Administration that provided a purported legal justification for the “enhanced interrogation” methods. Sir Nigel said, “When evidently seriously flawed legal opinions are issued which then are used as a cover for the committing of serious crimes, one wonders at what point the authors of such opinions may themselves have to be considered part of the criminal plan in the first place?” He added, “Of course we know that so far there has been impunity.”

Chairperson Rodley also zeroed in on the issue of extraterritorial application of the ICCPR. He said at the conclusion of the hearings, it “was difficult . . . to understand what principles underlay the [U.S.] non-acceptance of the extraterritorial application of the Covenant.” Indeed, he immediately followed this statement with his exposition of the Committee’s contrary view. In diplomatic language, Rodley was saying the U.S. position was absurd. Here is Sir Nigel’s exposition:

  • “The relevant applicable principles were the canons of interpretation contained in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, . . . [which] stated that a treaty should be interpreted in the light of its text, its context, and its object and purpose.”
  • “Consequently, it was difficult to see how the words of article 2 of the Covenant regarding a State party’s undertaking to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized therein [[4]] were only capable of interpretation as meaning that they applied solely to people who were both within the territory and subject to its jurisdiction. An ordinary, grammatical reading of the article in question supported the interpretation that it applied to everybody in either of the circumstances provided for.”
  • “Furthermore, the idea that the object and purpose of the treaty was met by saying that its application stopped at the frontier, whatever effective control any State might have over certain individuals, was one that was hardly consistent with the treaty’s object and purpose. That was the position not only of the Committee [5] but also of the International Court of Justice and very many States.”

Conclusion

The Committee’s negative comments at the hearings were a preview of its very critical comments about U.S. human rights in the Committee’s concluding report or “observations.” Another post will discuss that report.

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[1] This account of the hearings is based upon articles in the Guardian (March 13 and 14), the New York Times (March 13), Reuters (March 13), Al-Jazeera (March 14), the International Justice Resource Center and the Committee’s Summary Record (March 14). The archived webcasts of these sessions are available on the web.

[2] Walter Kälin is a preeminent Swiss humanitarian, constitutional lawyer, international human rights lawyer, activist, advocate, legal scholar and law professor. He has been published extensively on issues of human rights law, the law of internally displaced persons, refugee law and Swiss constitutional law. Since Since 2004, Kälin has served as the Representative of the United Nations’ Secretary-General on the Human Rights of InternallyDisplaced Persons, and In 1991-1992, he served as the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Kuwait under Iraqi occupation. He holds degrees from the University of Bern (Dr. Jur.) and the Harvard Law School (LL.M.)

[3] Sir Nigel Rodley since 2001 has been a Committee member and since 2003 has served as its Vice Chair and now its Chair. He also is a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists and a trustee of the NGO Freedom from Torture. Since 1990 he has taught law and human rights at the University of Essex and since 1994 has been its Professor of Law and Chair of the Human Rights Centre. Formerly he was Amnesty International’s Legal Advisor and Head of the Legal and Intergovernmental Organisations [sic] Office (1973–1990) and U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture (1993-2001). He is a founding member and former Executive Committee Vice Chairman of INTERRIGHTS (the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights). He is the author of books and articles about international human rights and holds degrees from the University of Leeds (LLB), New York University (LLM), Columbia University (LLM) and the University of Essex (PhD). In 1998 Queen Elizabeth awarded him the Knight of the British Empire (KBE) for his “services to human rights and international law.”

[4] The complete text of Article 2(1) of the ICCPR states: “Each State Party to the . . . [ICCPR] undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,property, birth or other status.”

[5] The Committee publishes “general comments” setting forth its interpretation of various provisions of the treaty, and its interpretation of Article 2(1) is set forth in General Comment No. 31 (The Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant), which was issued on March 29, 2004.

 

 

 

U.N. Human Rights Committee’s Review of U.S. Human Rights

In March 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee (the Committee) made a very negative evaluation of how the United States of America (U.S.) was implementing and complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant), which is regarded as an important part of the International Bill of Rights.

Before we examine the Committee’s hearings that resulted in that very negative evaluation in subsequent posts, we will look at the background of the ICCPR and the events leading up to the Committee’s hearings and evaluation.

Background of the ICCPR

As discussed in a prior post, the ICCPR was approved and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The drafting of the treaty was the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in which the U.S. participated.

The ICCPR (in terms reminiscent of the U.S. Bill of Rights) establishes an international minimum standard of governmental conduct for rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; family; and participation in public life. The ICCPR forbids “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

The ICCPR’s Part IV established the Human Rights Committee, and its Article 41 provides that periodically the States Parties to the treaty shall “submit reports on the measures they have adopted which give effect to the rights recognized . . . [in the treaty] and on the progress made in the enjoyment of those rights” and that the Committee “shall study [such] . . . reports . . . . [and make] such general comments as it may consider appropriate.”[1]

Under Articles 28 and 29 of the treaty, its states parties elect the 18 Committee members to four-year terms from “nationals of the States Parties . . . who shall be persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights, consideration being given to the usefulness of the participation of some persons having legal experience, . . . [and] who shall be elected and shall serve in their personal capacity.”

The Committee, under Article 31, “may not include more than one national of the same State” and “consideration shall be given to equitable geographical distribution of membership and to the representation of the different forms of civilization and of the principal legal systems.”

As discussed in a prior post, the Covenant went into force on March 23, 1976, in accordance with its Article 49(1), after 35 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. On October 5, 1977, the U.S. signed the treaty, but it was not until nearly 15 years later (June 8, 1992), that the U.S. ratified this treaty (with reservations) and became a state party thereto. Now there are 168 states parties to the treaty.

Events Leading Up to the Committee’s Evaluation 

1. U.S. Report. On December 30, 2011, the U.S. submitted to the Committee its 188-page Fourth periodic report.[2]

The report opened with these words of President Obama,“By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. . . .”

The report then marched through the U.S. implementation of each of the 27 Articles of the ICCPR.

In conclusion, the U.S. report discussed the Committee’s Concluding Observations on the prior U.S. report that the U.S. “acknowledge the applicability of the Covenant with respect to individuals under its jurisdiction, but outside its territory, as well as its applicability in time of war.” The U.S., however, reiterated its position that the Covenant does not so apply.

With respect to the Committee’s prior request that the U.S. “consider in good faith the interpretation of the Covenant provided by the Committee,” the U.S. continued to reject the Committee’s interpretation on applicability, but said it “appreciates its ongoing dialogue with the Committee with respect to the interpretation and application of the Covenant, considers the Committee’s views in good faith, and looks forward to further discussions of these issues when it presents this report to the Committee.”

2. Committee’s List of Issues. On April 29, 2013, after reviewing the U.S. report and Common Core Document, the Committee issued its six-page, 27-paragraph List of Issues, which asked the U.S. to respond to the following:

  • U.S. constitutional and legal framework: clarify U.S. position on applicability of Covenant for individuals under its jurisdiction, but outside its territory; measures to ensure state and local authorities comply with the Covenant; whether a national human rights institution will be established; and whether the U.S. will withdraw its reservations to the Covenant.
  • Non-discrimination and equal rights of men and women: describe efforts to address racial disparities in criminal justice system and to eliminate all kinds of racial profiling against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians; provide information on imposition of criminal penalties on street people and on obstacles to undocumented migrants’ accessing health services and higher education institutions.
  • Right to life: provide information on various issues regarding the death penalty and victims of gun violence; and clarify how drone attacks allegedly comply with the Covenant and whether senior officers and lower-ranking soldiers have been investigated and punished for unlawful killings in armed conflict.
  • Prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and treatment of detainees: provide information on independent investigations of treatment of detainees, whether U.S. regards so-called “enhanced interrogation” to violate the Covenant, why the U.S. has not adopted a statute prohibiting torture within its territory, whether the U.S. systematically evaluates “diplomatic assurances” before transfers of detainees, addressing claims of police brutality and excessive use of force, regulation of electro-muscular-disruption devices, prohibition and prevention of corporal punishment of children and application of criminal law to minors, non-consensual use of medication in psychiatric and research institutions, solitary confinement, separation of juvenile from adults detainees, rights of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, rights of immigrant detainees and prevention of domestic violence.
  • Elimination of slavery and servitude: provide information on combatting human trafficking and protection of children from sexual exploitation.
  • Right to privacy: provide information on NSA surveillance.
  • Freedom of assembly and association: clarify why certain workers are excluded from right to organize in trade unions.
  • Freedom of movement, marriage, family and protection of minors: clarify whether all cases of individuals serving life sentences without parole for offenses committed as a minor have been reviewed and if U.S. will abolish such sentences; and provide information on children held at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Right to take part in conduct of public affairs: provide information on voting rights of citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions, states’ measures to impose legal or de facto disenfranchisement of voters and efforts to provide residents of District of Columbia right to vote and elect representatives to U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
  • Rights of minorities: provide information on protection of indigenous sacred sites and their rights to be consulted and consent to matters affecting their interests.

3. U.S. Replies. On July 5, 2013, the U.S. submitted its 28-page Replies to the List of Issues. It said the U.S. responded “with great pleasure” and was “pleased to participate in this process.” The U.S., it said, “in the spirit of cooperation, provided as much information as possible in response to the questions posed by the Committee.”

The U.S., however, maintained its position that the treaty did not have extraterritoriality, i.e., it did not apply to U.S. conduct outside the U.S. It did provide some additional information, but did not retract any of its previous positions that prompted the Committee’s List of Issues.

4. Civil Society Organizations’ Submissions. Sometime prior to October 2013, 138 reports about the status of U.S. human rights were submitted to the Committee by civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, Physicians for Human Rights and Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.

5. Postponement. The Committee’s review of the U.S was scheduled for October 2013, but was postponed until March 2014, pursuant to a U.S. request due to the then ongoing U.S. government shutdown.[3]

6. U.S. Delegation. On March 7, 2014, the U.S. submitted to the Committee the list of members of the U.S. delegation for the upcoming session. The U.S. Representative was Mary McLeod, Principal Deputy Legal Adviser, Office of the Legal Advisor, Department of State. She was to be aided by 27 Advisers from the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Interior; the U.S. Mission to the U.N.; the Attorney General of the State of Mississippi; the Mayor’s Office of Salt Lake City, Utah; and a Private Sector Adviser (a private attorney from Los Angeles, California).

Conclusion

On March 13 and 14, 2014, the Committee held hearings in Geneva, Switzerland on the U.S. report and other information, and on March 26, 2014, the Committee adopted its 11-page report (Concluding observations on the fourth report of the United States of America) that was very critical of the U.S. compliance with the ICCPR.[4]

These subjects will be discussed in subsequent posts.

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[1] The nation states creating and joining this treaty chose to not grant the Committee the power to order the states to do anything. Instead, the Committee only may make recommendations as observations.

[2] The report was supplemented the same date by the 85-page U.S. Common Core Document that contained general information (U.S. demographic, economic, social and cultural characteristics) and legal information (U.S. constitutional, political and legal structure; general framework for the protection and promotion of human rights; and information on non-discrimination and equality and effective remedies).

The U.S.’ fourth periodic report and Common Core Document were preceded by the first U.S. report to the Committee on July 29, 1994 (with the Committee’s concluding observations on October 3, 1995) and the U.S.’ combined second and third reports on November 28, 2005 (with the Committee’s concluding observations on September 15 and December 18, 2006).

[3] The civil society organizations submitted to the Committee an additional 41 reports before the March 2014 Committee session.

[4] The Committee’s procedure and report are similar to, but separate from, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of U.S. human rights that is conducted by a separate U.N. organization, the Human Rights Council, as discussed in a prior post.

The Persistence of the Inquisition

The Inquisition was a phenomenon limited to fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain. Correct? Not so says Cullen Murphy in his new book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and in the Atlantic Magazine’s excerpt of the book, Torturer’s Apprentice. So too does Adam Gopnik in a recent New Yorker essay about this and related books, Inquiring Minds: The Spanish Inquisition revisited.

As Gopnik puts it,  the Inquisition is “an institution as deeply rooted in modernity as the scientific tradition that it opposed. Its fanaticism, its implicit totalitarianism . . ., its sheer bureaucratic brutality  . . . make it central to who we are and what we do. Its thumbprint is everywhere. . . .” What happens at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is only one of the recent examples. Another example is the close parallels of the Spanish Inquisition’s interrogation manuals and the current U.S. manuals about “enhanced interrogation.”

Gopnik also criticizes scholars who allegedly delve into the minutia of the Spanish Inquisition and in the process lose the forest for the trees: Benzion Netanyahu (the father of the Israeli Prime Minister), Henry Kamen and Eamon Duffy.

According to Gopnik, history needs to be done with “historical imagination,” which is the “ability to see small and think big.” Without such imagination, the historian “risks a failure of basic human empathy.”  For studying and writing about the Spanish Inquisition, this means, he says, that the historian must imagine “the horror of being burned alive.”

The persistence of the practices of the Inquisition unfortunately continues to be demonstrated by the news of the day. Minneapolis’ Center for Victims of Torture has treated over 23,000 victims over the last 24 years. A similar program at New York City’s Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture recently reported that in its “20 years of examining torture victims, we have seen few as traumatized as the several Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and black site (secret prison) detainees whom we evaluated.” And the European Court of Human Rights recently decided that under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the U.K. could not deport a radical Muslim cleric to Jordan because there was a “real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him.”

We also have seen in the following prior posts the persistence of torture and the efforts to stop such conduct:

  • the negotiation and adoption of a multilateral treaty against torture (the International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment);
  • the U.S. first and second reports to the Committee Against Torture;
  • the U.S. adoption of the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA);
  • the U.S. federal court lawsuit under the TVPA over the torture, rape and murders of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador;
  • the criminal cases in Spain under the principle of universal jurisdiction against U.S. officials for alleged torture of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and for  authoring legal memoranda allegedly justifying torture;
  • the granting of asylum to a Salvadoran for having been tortured in his home country and who came to Minnesota to be treated at the Center for Treatment of Victims of Torture; and
  • the jurisdiction over torture as part of crimes against humanity (Art. 7(1)(f)) and war crimes (Art. 8(2)(a)(ii), 8(2)(c)(i)) for the International Criminal Court and other international criminal tribunals.

As a result, eternal vigilance against torture is necessary. In the U.S., for example, various religious groups have banded together in a National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Its statement of conscience says, “Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved — policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.”

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