The U.N. Human Rights Committee (HRC) is a group of 18 experts who meet three times a year to monitor how well countries are following the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR is a multilateral treaty adopted in 1976 by the U.N. General Assembly, and it has been described as the most important human rights treaty in the world. Including the U.S., there are 167 parties to this treaty. The HRC monitors how well the rights of the ICCPR are being implemented by reviewing reports that all parties who have ratified status are required to submit every five years. States, or autonomous political and territorial units, are expected to collaborate with local civil organizations such as NGOs in preparing their reports. These civil organizations will often submit an additional “shadow report” of their own to the HRC. The HRC, currently chaired by British law professor Sir Nigel Rodley, considered the United States’ report at its mid-March meeting. On March 26, the HRC reported its “concluding observations.” According to an advance, unedited version of the report, there are several “principal matters of concern.”
The report also notes some “positive aspects” as well. The U.S. was commended on its removing the possibility of a death sentence for pregnant women and people under 18 as well as its support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Appreciation was also expressed on several Guantanamo Bay issues such as “the extraterritorial application of constitutional habeas corpus rights to aliens” detained there and the executive orders to ensure lawful interrogations and to establish periodic reviews for detainees “who have not been charged, convicted, or designated for transfer.”
However, the “principal matters of concern” far outnumber the “positive aspects.” For instance, the U.S. is not applying the Covenant to “individuals under its jurisdiction but outside its territory.” NSA surveillance concerns the HRC, as does the fact that the U.S. uses drones for targeted killings. According to the HRC’s concluding observations, the U.S. is not holding members of the Armed Forces and other government agents accountable for unlawful killings, torture, inhuman treatment or punishment of U.S. detainees. The justice system displays racial disparities and employs racial profiling. There are some states in the U.S. in which the death penalty is legal. There is no timeline for Guantanamo Bay’s closure. There are “continuing high numbers of gun-related deaths” and domestic violence, and the HRC is concerned that “Stand Your Ground Laws” are used to get around self-defense limits. Corporal punishment of children is used in the home, school, and penal institutions. The rates of excessive force by law enforcement officials, the continued practice of prolonged solitary confinement in adults and juveniles who are deprived of their liberty, the criminalization of homelessness, and the “lack of comprehensive legislation criminalizing all forms of torture, including mental torture” are all stated concerns of the HRC. Some courts still retain the ability to use their discretion to render life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses and adults convicted of non-homicide offenses. State-level felon disenfranchisement laws take away voting rights. Mental health services use electroshock, psychiatric medication, and other coercive and restrictive practices.
With regard to immigration, the HRC stated that the U.S. too often rely on diplomatic assurances that do not provide sufficient safeguards” for non-refoulement, a principle which protects refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened. Mandatory detention and deportation of immigrants is employed without consideration of other factors such as the “seriousness of crimes and misdemeanors committed, the length of lawful stay in the U.S., health status, family ties and the fate of spouses and children staying behind, or the humanitarian situation in the country of destination.” Additionally, there is not enough investigation and identification of cases of forced labor/trafficking, and the victims of those types of crimes are often criminalized.
Finally, the HRC notes concerns about insufficient protection of indigenous peoples’ sacred areas against contamination, destruction, and desecration as a result of tourism, extractive industries, urbanization, industrial development, and toxic contamination.
For each of the above points, the HRC has made recommendations and requested that the U.S. provide “relevant information” within one year on the implementation of some of those recommedations. The U.S. 2019 periodical report should include “up-to-date information on all its recommendations and on the Covenant as a whole.” Executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project Paul Boden commented on the HRC’s concluding observations by stating that “the U.S. seems to talk a much bigger rhetoric than it practices.”
By Donna Westlund