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The U.S. takes center stage at the U.N.

The United Nations’ Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva for its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States.

United Nations Human Rights Council
Delegates attend a session on racism and police brutality resolution in the wake of the death of George Floyd, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 19.
Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

The eyes of the world are on the United States for a few reasons these days, but for 3½ hours today, the eyes of the international community will be focusing not on election results, recounts, or infection rates, but on our country’s human rights record. From 7:30 to 11:00 a.m. (CST), the United Nations’ Human Rights Council will meet in Geneva to hold its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States.

Although the Trump administration withdrew from the Human Rights Council in 2018, the Council nevertheless reviews every member country of the U.N., so the U.S. Government is sending a delegation to Geneva headed up by Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert A. Destro. The delegation will describe the administration’s position on the status of human rights in the U.S. and any progress the country has made in implementing recommendations it accepted from the last UPR in 2015.

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For this UPR of the United States, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted reports to the Human Rights Council addressing three critical human rights issues – asylumlabor trafficking, and the death penalty. Separately, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, The Advocates also made a detailed statement to the council about the urgent need to dismantle the systemic racism that both fuels police violence in the U.S. and leads to impunity for law enforcement officers who commit such violence. In lieu of our typical in-person engagement with U.N, delegations, we have been busy engaging in electronic lobbying and holding online events to encourage countries to take up our issues during their brief statements.

Lisa Borden
Lisa Borden
To inform the UPR process, the State Department recently submitted its national report, which presents the current administration’s views on pressing human rights concerns. For example, responding to 2015 UPR recommendations to address police profiling, excessive use of force, and systemic racism in law enforcement, the report asserts:

“Each of these recommendations assumes – wrongly in our view – that the United States and federal, state and local governments engage in ‘systemic’ racial discrimination, racial profiling, and that federal, state and local law enforcement officers are regularly engaged in excessive uses of force. We reject the notion that law enforcement in the United States is ‘systemically’ racist.”

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Sadly, this assertion both reflects the lack of progress on police violence since the last review and bodes poorly for any future progress under the current administration. Indeed, there have been significant adverse developments in all of the areas addressed by our submissions since the last UPR of the United States in 2015, and it is more important than ever for the international community to use its influence to pressure the U.S. for real change.

The UPR is a peer review process, and 120 countries have signed up to take the floor and offer their recommendations for how the United States can better uphold its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. With so many countries lining up to address the U.S., each will have only 55 seconds to provide its input. Ten countries also submitted advance questions for the U.S. delegation on topics ranging from LGBTI rights to the controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights to immigration detention and police violence.

The federal government will have until March 2021 to decide whether to accept each recommendation it receives. An anticipated Biden administration is likely to take a very different approach to all of these issues (and to rejoin the Human Rights Council). Accepted recommendations set the stage for civil society organizations like ours to pressure the government toward implementation before the next UPR in 2025.

Readers who want to follow the UPR of the United States this morning and get involved can watch the review live on UN Web TV, or when it appears in the archives later in the day. We will also be livetweeting the review, and readers can follow our Twitter feed at @The_Advocates to see the recommendations that are made and even engage with the governments making important recommendations by retweeting our tweets and adding your thanks for their strong input.

We will also be offering two thematic debriefings via Facebook Live on Tuesday, Nov. 10:

    • At noon CST, we’ll have a conversation with staff, volunteers, and partners about immigration, worker rights, and police violence and accountability, where we’ll show clips to highlight some of our favorite statements, celebrate successes, and talk about our next steps.
    • At 1:15 CST, together with other U.S.-based members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, we’ll focus on death penalty issues that came up in the interactive dialogue.

After this interactive dialogue is completed, we will be collaborating with other civil society actors and organizations on strategies to encourage the new administration to accept recommendations before the Human Rights Council meets in March 2021 to conclude its review of the United States. We urge everyone who is concerned about the status of human rights in the U.S. to join us in pushing for change.

By Lisa Borden, staff attorney for the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights. Before joining The Advocates earlier this year, Lisa practiced law in Alabama and worked on civil rights litigation including numerous death penalty cases. Lisa was also a frequent pro bono volunteer for The Advocates while in private practice.


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