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Hold the US accountable on human rights

A UN review of US rights record has a full agenda

May 11, 2015 10:30AM ET

The United States has its second universal periodic review (UPR) before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday. Countries will be able to ask the U.S. questions and make recommendations about its implementation of human rights commitments made during its first review, which took place in 2010, as well as about other issues of concern.

At the top of the list should be Washington’s failure to hold accountable those responsible for the systematic torture carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency in the global “war on terrorism.” Five years ago, the U.S. accepted a UPR recommendation from Denmark to “take measures to eradicate” and “thoroughly investigate” all forms of torture and abuse by military or civilian personnel within its jurisdiction. But the only investigation into CIA torture conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice was limited in scope and closed in 2012 with no charges filed. Nor does it seem to have met basic standards of credibility or thoroughness; investigators apparently never bothered to interview key witnesses of the abuse: the detainees.

The U.S. has finally begun to tell the truth about what happened: the December 2014 release of a partially redacted summary of a detailed U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report that describes, in harrowing detail, many of the acts of torture to which CIA officials subjected detainees. Yet the full 6,700-page report remains classified, and Barack Obama’s administration has expressed no interest in appointing a special prosecutor and opening new investigations. Countries that have succeeded in bringing to justice those responsible for atrocities should take the lead in pressing the U.S. to act.

Indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay remains another outstanding concern. The administration has reiterated its commitment to close the facility and has gradually transferred some detainees to other countries. But 122 men remain locked up in the detention center because of congressional restrictions on transfers and apparent foot dragging by the Department of Defense. These men have no clear prospect of release or a fair trial under military commissions, which are fundamentally flawed. Among other problems, they allow the use of evidence obtained by coercion, fail to protect attorney-client privilege and use rules that block the defense from obtaining information essential to the case, including about the CIA’s treatment of the detainees on trial while they were in its custody.

Nearly two years since Snowden’s first disclosures, neither the White House nor Congress has yet to impose meaningful limits on the NSA's mass surveillance programs.

Serious and longstanding human rights problems also plague the U.S. criminal justice system, including poor prison conditions, disproportionately harsh sentencing, the death penalty and abusive police practices. As the protests in many U.S. cities over the deaths of African-Americans Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and others show, there is strong and understandable public concern over police brutality and racial discrimination in the U.S. criminal justice system. Other governments should press the U.S. to clean up these blots on its record.

Countries should also call the U.S. out on abuses in its immigration system, notably its recent decision to detain immigrant families with children who are apprehended crossing the border. The administration admits the detentions are aimed at deterring other migrants, many of whom are fleeing persecution at home. But international law bars all detention of children for immigration purposes, which is profoundly harmful to their development.

The large-scale U.S. surveillance programs revealed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden raise further concerns. Nearly two years since his first disclosures, neither the White House nor Congress has yet to impose meaningful limits on these programs, which affect potentially millions of people inside and outside the U.S. Even a very modest bill to impose some constraints on domestic surveillance, the USA Freedom Act, faces strong opposition from legislators who support the programs. In this context, it is ever more critical that concerned governments join others, like those of Brazil and Germany, that have been pressing the U.S. to reform.

The U.S. has put a lot of effort into strengthening the U.N. Human Rights Council and making the UPR a useful process when it comes to dealing with other countries. It has also made a point of setting a good example, by engaging in extensive consultation with nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders in the run-up to its review. But the U.S. will risk undermining these efforts if it fails to fulfill its own human rights commitments.

Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno is a co-director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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