Global Policy Forum

US Defends Rights Record


By Laura MacInnis

July 17, 2006

The United States defended its record on prisoner treatment, racial profiling, immigration and the death penalty on Monday in its first appearance before a top United Nations human rights panel in 11 years. Matthew Waxman, who lead the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, submitted a 66-page document offering legal justifications for policies ranging from renditions of foreign detainees to juvenile sentencing in the United States.

Acknowledging an "intense international interest" in U.S. activities abroad since the September 11, 2001, attacks propelled Washington into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and sparked an overhaul of many U.S. laws, Waxman said geopolitics had recently made rights protection more complicated.

"Although the threat from al Qaeda presents tough legal challenges, our guiding principle is that our actions must be consistent with our Constitution, our laws and our international obligations," the principal deputy director for policy planning of the State Department told the committee. Referring to the Bush administration's reversal of policy to allow application of the Geneva Conventions to those detained in its "war on terror," Waxman said Washington was trying hard to properly balance its legal protections.

"We are constantly reviewing our policies and practices to ensure their compliance with the law. Sometimes course corrections are needed," he said. Representatives of some 142 U.S. non-governmental groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and National Organization of Women came to Geneva to press the U.S. delegation on a range of domestic and international issues.

In the first session of the two-day hearing, held in a packed meeting room in the U.N.'s European headquarters, legal experts making up the Human Rights Committee raised concerns over the alleged mistreatment of Hurricane Katrina victims, aboriginal land rights, U.S. law enforcement methods. The hearing was part of a regular cycle for signatories to the U.N.'s convention on civil and political rights. The United States last came before the committee in 1995. Countries normally appear before the panel about every four years. The latest U.S. report to the committee on its rights performance, submitted in October, was seven years late.

The United States has argued "extra-territorial" issues, including the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are not covered under the civil and political rights covenant monitored by the committee. "It is our firm belief that those issues in large part lie beyond the scope of the treaty," said Mark Lagon, deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for international organizations.

"Nonetheless, the United States will answer those controversial questions as a courtesy to the committee and as a matter of openness to the international community," he added. The committee is expected to release its recommendations to the United States, which carry moral and symbolic weight but are not legally binding, later this month.


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