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From Police Violence at Home to Killing Civilians in Unending Wars Abroad, US Faces Human Rights Reckoning at UN

An ACLU leader urged the incoming administration to "take bold actions on day one to reverse President Trump's harmful policies."

The United States was the subject of the United Nations Human Rights Council's review on November 9, 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: Getty Images)

The United Nations Human Rights Council is conducting its twice-per-decade review of the United States' human rights record. (Photo: Getty Images) 

The United States on Monday faced criticism over its human rights record from allies and adversaries alike at the United Nations as the country submitted to its first Universal Periodic Review of the Trump administration. 

All 193 U.N. member states must undergo UPRs, which are held at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC)—from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018 over alleged anti-Israel bias—in Geneva, Switzerland every five years. 

"While the American voters elected a new president who is more committed to universal human rights, the international community must continue to hold the U.S. accountable to its international human rights obligations."
—Jamil Dakwar, ACLU

Some 120 nations participated in this year's debate, which mostly occurred online due to the coronavirus pandemic, about the U.S. human rights record. Many nations, some with their own serious rights issues, offered criticism ranging from constructive to condemnatory. Country representatives were allowed less than a minute each to comment on the subject. 

According to Agence France-Presse, the concern raised most at the half-day event was police violence against Black people and other minorities and in response to racial justice protests. U.S. policies and actions abroad, including the continued operation of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and the never-ending so-called War on Terror, were also discussed. 

U.S. allies urged Washington to ratify human rights treaties, while expressing alarm over racism, inequality, gun violence, family separation and other abuse of undocumented migrants, and additional social ills, the Associated Press reports.

Australia and the Netherlands were among the friendly nations that called upon the U.S. to enact a moratorium on the death penalty. Germany asked the U.S. to rejoin the HRC and to end its sanctions against International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who infuriated President Donald Trump and other U.S. leaders when she announced the ICC was launching an investigation of U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan.

Rival nations did not pull any punches in their criticism of U.S. human rights violations, both at home and abroad. Chinese representative Jiang Duan—whose country is run by one of the world's more repressive regimes and is accused of human rights crimes ranging from democracy suppression in Hong Kong to genocide against its Uighur and Tibetan populations—spoke quickly as he listed nine serious causes of concern. Among these were systemic racism, politicization of the Covid-19 pandemic, gun proliferation, and unending imperialist wars that have killed at least hundreds of thousands of civilians in more than half a dozen nations over the past 19 years. 

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"Stop interfering for political reasons in other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of human rights," Duan admonished. 

Pushing back against the global criticism, U.S. Ambassador Andrew Bremberg said that the American democratic system "allows for continued scrutiny, advocacy, and debate, which fuels progress and reform."

"We are willing to openly acknowledge our shortcomings," Bremberg insisted. 

While this was the first UPR of Trump's tenure, the HRC conducted a six-month investigation in 2017 and 2018 resulting in a report condemning the administration for consciously exacerbating the worst economic inequality in the developed world. In July 2020 the HRC also decried the "arbitrary arrest and detention" and "unnecessary, disproportionate, or discriminatory use of force" against protesters, journalists, and others at demonstrations following the police and white supremacist killings of Black and Latinx people including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Andres Guardado, and others. 

Human rights groups welcomed the UPR.

"Today, the world watches to see whether the United States will seize the opportunity for its policies to be examined fully under the light of transparency or whether it will shirk from the sunlight and bury its human rights record in the shadows of excuses," Bob Goodfellow, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement

ACLU human rights director Jamil Dakwar responded to the UPR by urging President-elect Joe Biden—who as a lawmaker and vice president supported numerous human rights violations both inside the U.S. and overseas—to "prioritize re-engagement with international human rights."

"While the American voters elected a new president who is more committed to universal human rights, the international community must continue to hold the U.S. accountable to its international human rights obligations," Dakwar said, adding that the U.N. should "ensure that the U.S. repair the damages caused to millions of people’s lives over the past four years."

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