by Cynthia Soohoo, Director, Bringing Human Rights Home Project, Human Rights Institute, Columbia Law School
Last month, a U.N. committee of human rights experts strongly criticized the United States' human rights record both overseas and at home. The criticism followed a periodic review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ICCPR is a core U.N. human rights treaty and covers basic and fundamental civil and political rights. Parties to the treaty undertake an international obligation to respect and ensure treaty rights and to submit to periodic compliance reviews.
Although the U.S. ratified the ICCPR in 1992, it has only undergone one prior review in 1995. The long period between reviews, the growing interest of U.S. social justice organizations in human rights and international mechanisms, and mounting international criticism of the Bush administration's policies post-9/11 generated an unusual amount of interest in last month's review. Unfortunately, rather than engage in a dialogue, the U.S. delegation repeatedly relied on jurisdictional arguments, asserting that issues were beyond the scope of the Covenant. In particular, the delegation challenged the committee's jurisdiction over U.S. actions abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. On the domestic front, where ICCPR jurisdiction is clear, the delegation combined broad interpretation of U.S. reservations to treaty provisions with narrow interpretation of substantive rights and refused to concede any human rights problems in the U.S. The dynamics of the review were also affected by the unprecedented number of U.S. civil society groups that attended and submitted information for the review.
The ICCPR requires that parties submit to regular reviews conducted by the U.N. Human Rights Committee. The Committee is composed of independent human rights experts, nominated and elected by the parties to the treaty. Reviews are initiated when a country submits a written report to the committee. The lengthy period between U.S. reviews resulted from the State Department's submission of its current report seven years late. Following receipt of the report, the Committee conducts a formal review during which country representatives orally respond to the Committee's questions and concerns. Following the review, the Committee issues "Concluding Observations," which typically include positive aspects, areas of concern and recommendations.