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US Human Rights Record Under UN Scrutiny


Washington's record on treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, alleged secret prisons, and the juvenile justice system are some of the issues that will come under international scrutiny during the next two days. The U.N. Human Rights Committee will examine U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The U.S. report is more than seven years overdue and the examination promises to be intense and thorough. A high-powered legal team has come from Washington prepared to answer 25 questions drawn up to gauge how well the United States protects the civil and political rights of its citizens.

The State Department's Principal Deputy Director for Policy Planning, Matthew Waxman, says the United States takes its obligations under the Human Rights Covenant seriously and is proud of the nation's efforts to promote civil, political and human rights at home and abroad.

"Few countries in the world could claim greater protections. For example, speech, press, association, or religion than the United States," said Waxman. "The United States also historically promotes these same values around the world and continues to do so as part of the President's freedom agenda."

This hearing will give the committee's 18 human-rights experts their first opportunity to examine Washington's post 9/11 policies.

Human Rights Watch representative Alison Parker says she expects the Committee will question the United States about its controversial practice of sending terror suspects to their home countries, where they might face torture.

"The United States continues to take the position that diplomatic assurances, that means promises from governments which have a record of torture or human-rights abuse are sufficient to protect against that torture," noted Parker.

Parker says there are many documented cases where people have been subjected to torture despite diplomatic assurances to the contrary.

The State Department Deputy Director of War Crimes Issues, Sandra Hodgkinson, says about 140 people detained in Guantanemo Bay are slated for release. She says diplomatic assurances are one tool used to determine whether or not an individual can be sent back to his home country.

"It is important in this context to recognize that we do have to reach an agreement with the third country, the host nation of the country that is satisfactory that they will first not pose a future threat to Americans or our allies," commented Hodgkinson. "And second most importantly that it will not run afoul of our fundamental policy that we do not transfer people to a location where it is more likely than not that they will be tortured."

A coalition of 142 organizations has presented the U.N. Committee with a list of more than 100 alleged human-rights abuses in the United States.

Consultant for that coalition, Eric Tars, says the single biggest issue that affects all the others is that of U.S. exceptionalism.

"This concept that the U.S. does not have to play by the same rules that it asks the entire rest of the world to play by," he said. "This is manifested most obviously right now in the cases of Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan and the war on terror."

The Bush Administration has placed the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan under the rules of the Geneva Convention.

But other contentious issues expected to arise include the practice, in some jurisdictions, of sentencing child offenders to life sentences without the possibility of parole, immigration policies, human-rights violations around Hurricane Katrina, and post 9/11 national security policies.

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