Major issues of compliance with ICCPR US Under heavy fire On Human Rights and humane values in Geneva

March 22, 2014

hrBy Lucien Rajakarunanayake

While the US is currently leading its campaign against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, over alleged violations of human rights, alleged war crimes and the failure to achieve reconciliation etc., after the defeat of the LTTE terror, elsewhere in Geneva the US came in for heavy criticism for its own violations of human rights, disregard for the sovereignty of nations through drone strikes, and many other issues.
This was at the March 13 and 14 meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Committee charged with upholding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a UN treaty that the US ratified in 1992.

The criticism came on a long list of issues in the four yearly review of the US compliance with the requirements of the ICCPR, and showed that the US had repeatedly violated several of the requirements expected of it under the Covenant.

Among the main issues raised by the UN committee of experts that had studied the US compliance with the ICCPR ranged from detention without charge at Guantánamo, drone strikes and NSA surveillance, to the death penalty, rampant gun violence and endemic racial inequality.


This criticism came at the start of a two-day grilling of the US delegation by the committee’s 18 experts, who made clear their deep concerns about the US record across a raft of human rights issues. Many related to faultlines as old as America itself, such as guns and race, The Guardian, UK reported.

The Guardian report stated that “the US is clearly sensitive to suggestions that it fails to live up to the human rights obligations enshrined in the convention – as signalled by the large size of its delegation to Geneva this week. And as an act of public shaming, Thursday’s encounter was frequently uncomfortable for the US”.

Prof. Walter Kälin, a Swiss international human rights lawyer who sits on the committee, attacked the US government’s refusal to recognise the convention’s mandate over its actions beyond its own borders….. “This world is an unsafe place,” Kälin said. “Will it not become even more dangerous if any state would be willing to claim that international law does not prevent them from committing human rights violations abroad?”

Strong criticism also came on the large number of persons on death row in the US. Pointing out the disproportional representation of African Americans on death rows, he added: “Discrimination is bad, but it is absolutely unacceptable when it leads to death.”

The experts noted that there were 80,000 prisoners currently detained in terrible conditions, including in solitary confinement, and also including pre-trial detainees. Solitary confinement had serious persistent psychological and physical side-effects, which could continue after release. In addition, solitary confinement was used disproportionately against people from minority backgrounds. Solitary confinement was clearly incompatible with the Covenant.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture had released a report on solitary confinement, describing minimum guarantees for detainees, stating that the use of solidarity confinement had to be only exceptional and limited and that instances of solitary confinement beyond 15 days amounted to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. What steps had the United States taken to restrict and regulate the use of solitary confinement, particularly for vulnerable persons, the experts asked the US delegation?

Drone strikes

While the committee of experts recognized that the United States had the responsibility to protect its citizens against terrorism, however, they said the use of lethal force had to be regulated and restricted to circumstances of absolute necessity during all counter terrorist activities. Committee Experts were concerned by the United States’ open-ended approach regarding the definition of armed conflict, in particular, the lack of clarity regarding when such a conflict would end.

The US laws concerning the right of the military to employ lethal force were also unclear. Experts raised concerns related to the use of drones and the practice of targeted killings, including doubled strikes. Experts underlined allegations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that indiscriminate drone attacks had been carried out in Pakistan and Iraq. Were accountability mechanisms available to victims of drone attacks? Experts also expressed concern about the absence of prosecution against any commanders allegedly responsible for violations of the Covenant. Committee Members insisted that the United States enhance its standards of transparency on such cases.

Regarding the prohibition against torture, the Experts inquired about the conviction of officials following allegations of torture during interrogations carried as part of United States’ “war on terror”. How would the United States respond to the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur on human rights and countering terrorism? What remedies had been made available for victims of torture? Regarding the interrogation programs during the war on terror, would information be made public? Committee Members regretted that the United States had refused to implement recommendations made by other United Nations bodies in that regard.

On the issue of Guantanamo that remains a major cause of criticism of the Us on Human Rights, the ICCR Experts were deeply concerned about continued restrictions to prisoners’ right to a fair trial and to a defence. In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights considered that the continued detention of those prisoners, for whom transfer had been accepted, constituted a flagrant violation of human rights. Did a time line exist for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison? Given that the majority of prisoners were of Yemeni origin, were there resettlement efforts in place? Did the accused ever have the opportunity to review and challenge the evidence presented against them by the United States Government? Was it true that a prisoner had continuously been on hunger strike for the last seven years? These were matters on which the very large US delegation had very little satisfactory answers to offer.

The ICCPR Committee Members also raised concerns regarding the United States’ unilateral interpretation of the scope of applicability of the Covenant, which in some cases contradicted the views of the Committee: if all States Parties shared this interpretation there would be no protection of rights at all, one Expert said. They also expressed concerns regarding the lack of oversight over intelligence activities and the lack of remedies for the victims of United States’ extraterritorial activities. Human rights violations perpetrated by the United States in the context of countering terrorism, including allegations of torture and indefinite and arbitrary detention, were also of concern.

Racial disparity

Another important matter that came up was that of racial disparities that existed in the US judicial system. It noted the creation of a working group to review the practice of racial profiling. It was observed that, according to official statistics: 3.1 per cent of the Afro-American population and 1.3 per cent of the Latin-American population were incarcerated, while only 0.5 per cent of the white population was, which showed the glaring racial disparity and disproportion. The US was asked what further steps the Government would take to address the situation. Could the delegation provide details regarding reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had allegedly carried out discriminative activities and implemented systematic surveillance targeting the Muslim population?

It was noted that segregation had increased in the area of education, with Latin-American and African American people were more likely to quit school. What measures were being taken to address unequal access to education, the US was asked.

On the issue of guns Prof. Kälin pointed to another “staggering figure” – that there are 470,000 crimes committed with firearms each year, including about 11,000 homicides.

Among other issues that came under strong criticism at the Committee were;

*the proliferation of stand-your-ground gun laws

*enduring racial disparities in the justice system, including large numbers of black prisoners serving longer sentences than whites;

*mistreatment of mentally-ill and juvenile prisoners;

*segregation in schools;

*high levels of homelessness and criminalization of homeless people;

*racial profiling by police, including the mass surveillance of Muslim communities by the New York police department.

The head of the US delegation, Mary McLeod, a senior official in the State Department, insisted that the country was “continually striving to improve”. She said: “While we are certainly not perfect, our network of federal, state and local institutions provide checks on government … Since the founding of our country, in every generation there have been Americans who sought to realize our constitution’s promise of equal opportunity and justice for all.”

Sir Nigel Rodley, Chairperson of the Committee, noted that the United States’ approach regarding the extraterritorial applicability of the Covenant, however, remained problematic and unclear. The provisions of the Covenant were rather clear on the fact that it applied to both people in the territory and people under the jurisdiction of the State Party, and this was the most common interpretation. It was worrying that the United States presented such an example to the international community.

It is important to note that this grilling of the US delegation by the UN Committee on human rights was largely ignored by the mainstream media in the US and elsewhere in the West, that gives prominence to much less about matters of human rights and humane values when it comes from countries of the developing world, or those that do not follow the foreign policy dictates of the United States or major EU countries.

The Editor

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