Obama, U.S. Subject to Human Rights Roasting

UPDATED: 8:10 p.m. ET

This analysis was written by CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk at U.N. Headquarters.

The unprecedented move by the Obama administration to submit the U.S. domestic human rights record to world inspection at the United Nations' Human Rights Council this week is, in and of itself, a milestone.

Supporters say it will allow nations to level the playing field, at least on human rights. Critics, however, say adversaries of the United States will just abuse the forum -- and Iran weighed in even before the session began.

Adding to the controversy over U.S. participation at the Council is the fact that Wikileaks founder Juilian Assange was invited to give testimony on alleged U.S. human rights abuses.

Assange spoke twice on the theme, highlighting the alleged use of torture by American forces, and by other forces with implicit U.S. consent, in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Wikileaks pointed a castigating finger at the Obama administration with its publication of thousands of classified military documents which the organization claims reveal human rights abuses continuing under Mr. Obama's presidency. Assange has also taken the administration to task for failing to act on the information revealed in the leaked documents.

The harshest criticism of U.S. human rights, however, came from within the U.S. -- not from the government's own report submitted to the U.N., but from a 400 page document submitted by the U.S. Human Rights Network, a coalition of 300 organizations.

The theory behind the Obama administration's decision to sign onto the Human Rights Council -- a U.N. agency which Mr. Obama's predecessors declined to join -- is that, in terms of human rights, it will bring the bottom up, not the top down. In other words, members feel countries which routinely and grossly violate human rights will be more inclined to improve their standards with the U.S. onboard, and countries which try to uphold human rights, including the U.S., will not be diminished by an open hearing.

The theory is untested -- it's still unclear whether the U.S. role in the Council will encourage other countries to engage more seriously on the issue.

Critics of the administration, particularly those who will now be in leadership positions on Capitol Hill, say the fact that Iran and Venezuela will now be able to question the U.S. on human rights is a sham.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee poised to possibly become the new Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee when the GOP assumes the leadership was outraged at the course of the roasting, saying, Serial human rights abusers like Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela all hijacked the platform to attack the U.S. for imaginary violations. And, starting in January, President Obama's support of U.S. membership may very well come under scrutiny in the new Congress. Ros-Lehtinen added, So long as the inmates are allowed to run the asylum, the Human Rights Council will continue to stand in the way of justice, not promote it. The U.S. should walk out of this rogues gallery and seek to build alternative forums that will actually focus on abuses and deny membership to abusers. The bill that she authored, the United Nations Transparency, Accountability and Reform Act (H.R. 557), which proposes to withhold funding to the U.N. equal to what is allocated to the Human Right Council, may see more support. The Congress, after all, controls the power of the purse.

The Human Rights Council, which is holding what it calls its Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, is new. The old Human Rights Commission was dismantled four years ago, and had a record of allowing repressive regimes to become members. The new Council also includes well-known human rights violators, including Libya, China, and Saudi Arabia -- whose representatives, beginning this week and into next week, will doubtlessly focus on the human rights failings of the United States.

The submissions by U.S. organizations were piled up, too. One report cites the U.S. government for targeting organizations including the Black Panther Party and Weather Underground, while others stuck to current issues of torture and the use of drones in the Afghanistan war. Domestic organizations also criticize the use of electric shocker batons in the U.S.

Read the Full Report by U.S. Human Rights network (see page 148, Political Repression Political Prisoners):

Many experts on international humanitarian law would like to see the U.S. strengthen its commitments to humanitarian law by signing treaties enforceable in the U.S., and signing onto other treaties the U.S. has yet to sign or ratify. The U.S. has not, for example, signed the International Children's Rights Convention, and will likely be pressured to do so.

The delegation of almost three dozen U.S. officials in Geneva acknowledged in their report that flaws in the American human rights record include discrimination against African Americans and Hispanics, and what the report calls a "broken" immigration system.

Read the actual reports and see the testimony

and the U.N. Universal Periodic Review

The report points out, however, that the country is at war with al Qaeda and that the U.S. does protect freedom of expression, has a fair judicial system, allows labor unions and is working to curtail discrimination against minorities.

As the three hour session opened and Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organizations, Department of State and Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary, Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, presented the Obama administration report. There, too, on the panel, were Harold Hongju Koh, Legal Adviser, Office of the Legal Adviser, Department of State, Ivan Fong, General Counsel, Department of Homeland Security, and Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs.

Then, the grilling began. The speaker's list began with Cuba, Venezuela, the Russian Federation, Iran, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Bolivia, Ecuador, North Korea, Algeria, Qatar, Mexico, Egypt, China and Libya. The Russians complained about the death penalty, the Cubans, the embargo, the British, the closing of Guantanamo. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called for the U.S. to carry out its own investigation into human rights abuse allegations found in the documents he published from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It will become clear during the next week, as the U.S. is able to reply to the final report, whether U.S. involvement in the Human Rights Council is seen as a mere spectacle, or an opportunity for the Obama administration to show it can take some serious heat.

The man with the most to lose may be President Obama himself, who won't even be at the Geneva meeting in person. He's still reeling from the mid-term election loses, and with the most stinging rebuke to America's human rights record coming from U.S. human rights groups, it will be abundantly clear that Mr. Obama has to worry about taking grief from the right, the left, and the center.


  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.

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