by Nahal Zamani, Advocacy Program Manager with the Center for Constitutional Rights
As the Obama administration continues rallying its allies to hold Russia to its international law obligations in Ukraine, the international community had an opportunity this week to turn the magnifying glass the other way and question the U.S. government about its own compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The United Nations Human Rights Committee’s questions rightly reflected the growing international understanding that the U.S. government’s rhetoric on human rights doesn’t match its actions at home or abroad.
I came to Geneva as part of an 80-person delegation of U.S.-based NGOs to focus the UN committee’s attention on key facts about the U.S.’s most flagrant human rights violations. Government officials usually gloss over or blatantly whitewash state abuses, so it is up to groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights, where I work, and our allies to document what is actually happening and ensure the committee gets an accurate picture.
In the days leading to the review session, we briefed committee members on arbitrary detentions at Guantánamo, the NYPD’s racially discriminatory stop and frisk practices, prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, racial disparities in the use of the death penalty, the blanket surveillance of Muslim communities, deportations to Haiti, suppression on campuses across the U.S. of speech critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, and countless other issues. The UN committee was responsive to the information we presented and, on Thursday and Friday, delivered a long list of hard-hitting questions to the U.S. government delegation.
The two-day grilling strongly condemned the rights abuses that CCR had highlighted, and many others that the U.S. government has either failed to address or openly sanctioned, as in the case of detentions and force-feedings at Guantánamo, immigration detention quotas, and drone strikes. In particular, the committee highlighted the cases of our Guantánamo clients Tarik Ba Odah and Djamel Ameziane. Mr. Ba Odah has been on an uninterrupted hunger strike for 7 years and is force-fed daily by guard staff. He is one of the 56 Yemenis who have been cleared for release for years but remain detained because of their citizenship. Mr. Ameziane was forcibly repatriated to Algeria last December after nearly 12 years of detention without charge.
On the stop-and-frisk front, the committee framed the issue as a violation of Article 12 of the ICCPR on the right to freedom of movement and pushed the U.S. government to clarify its position on the practice, noting that a U.S. federal judge has already ruled the program was implemented in a racially discriminatory manner. It was particularly rewarding to see the committee’s understanding of this situation match the experiences of affected communities in New York City who feel under siege by the police in their own neighborhoods and reflect former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s statement that he “targeted and focused on [Blacks and Latinos] because he wanted to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.” The committee’s acknowledgment shows that the voices of those affected by stop-and-frisk have been heard far and wide.
When the U.S. delegation had its turn to respond, its responses were heavy on lip-service to the committee’s thorough questioning but light on substance. The delegation insisted that the U.S. government is “continually striving to improve” on many of the issues highlighted and largely stuck to its rhetoric on the importance of the ICCPR, while continuing to hold that the treaty does not apply to U.S. actions overseas.
The U.S. mentioned the “exceptional healthcare” Guantánamo detainees receive but refused to address the committee’s questions about the force-feedings at the prison, only stating that it is U.S. policy to “support the preservation of life in a humane manner.” Similarly, the delegation told the committee that President Obama had lifted his self-imposed ban on repatriations to Yemen last year but did not explain why zero Yemenis have been transferred since. On drone strikes, ignoring the well-documented impact of these practices on civilians, the delegation simply expected the committee to take its word that the attacks are conducted in compliance with the fundamental principles of humanitarian law and that President Obama uses them only when there are no other reasonable alternatives. On stop-and-frisk, they took no position on the NYPD’s implementation of the program but stated that the DOJ supports the appointment of a court-monitor as part of the remedies ordered in Floyd v. City of New York. On specific requests, like declassifying the U.S. Senate’s torture report, the delegation simply stayed quiet.
The U.S. government’s responses show the Obama administration is likely to finish its second term without ever truly “walking its talk” as a human rights leader. But the tough questioning was an indication of how far activists across the U.S. have come in bringing these human rights abuses to the international stage. Public scrutiny from international bodies like the Human Rights Committee helps advocates like us fight for accountability in all possible venues, increase public awareness of these issues, and create new opportunities for real change. Stay tuned for when the committee issues its concluding observations in the coming weeks.
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