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US Defends Human Rights Record At UN Council

  • Lisa Schlein

US Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer (file photo)

US Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer (file photo)

The United States has warded off a barrage of criticism from a number of nations as it defended its human rights record before the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council. This is the first time the U.S. has formally participated in the Universal Periodic Review, a process under which the human rights records of all 192 U.N. Member States are assessed every four years.

The U.S. decision to defend its human rights record at the U.N. Human Rights Council is meeting with criticism from some quarters in the United States. Despite this, Washington has sent a large, high-powered team to present the report and participate in a grueling examination of its record by member States.

The Head of the Delegation, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs, Esther Brimmer, told the overflow diplomatic audience the United States was proud of its accomplishments.

She said American history has been one of progress, built on a strong foundation of fundamental freedoms of speech, association, and religion.

"This morning's presentation therefore is not the end, but only a milestone in our long-term engagement to promote our human rights aspirations," said Esther Brimmer. "We have approached this process with a seriousness of purpose of a commitment to engage genuinely with comments and questions raised in good faith."

This conciliatory overture was quickly met with hostile resistance from a number of countries, led by Cuba.

Cuban Ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez called for an end of the blockade against Cuba, which he described as a crime of genocide. He said it seriously violated the rights of the Cuban people.

He said the perpetrators of torture, extradition, executions and other serious violations of human rights committed in Guantanamo, Abu Graib, Baghram, and other facilities carried out by the joint special operations command and the CIA should be put on trial.

Dozens of other countries, including Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Russia, China, Algeria, Bolivia and Nicaragua, lined up behind Cuba, harshly judging U.S actions.

Many States, including allies like Britain and Australia, condemned the use of the death penalty and demanded it be abolished. They called for an end to racial profiling and racial discrimination, especially in regard to migrants.

Many concerns were raised about America's record on counterterrorism and alleged use of torture. They demanded the military base at Guantanemo Bay be closed.

In response, Legal Adviser of the Department of State, Harold Koh, categorically stated the U.S. does not and will not torture. He reiterated President Barack Obama's commitment to closing Guantanamo.

"While that commitment has not wavered, the task is enormously complex," he said. "President Obama cannot close Guantanamo alone. That also involves our allies, the courts and our Congress, which has legislated restrictions on transfers from Guantanamo… Our intensive efforts to close that facility continue every day and many, many people in the U.S. government are involved in that task. We are very grateful to those countries that have helped by accepting detainees for resettlement."

The U.S. delegation says it considers the Universal Periodic Review a healthy process. It calls it an important tool in helping the country to do better. It says it views this as an ongoing process and notes it will report back to the Council in March and then again in four years time.