The Universal Periodic Review, Human Rights, and Israel: What’s at Stake

By Peter Splinter, Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations in Geneva

By the end of 2011, all UN member states’ human rights records had been examined under the Universal Periodic Review process. © Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission

By the end of 2011, all UN member states’ human rights records had been examined under the Universal Periodic Review process. © Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission

If the Israeli government is not careful, it will ruin an important global human rights process for everybody.

The Universal Periodic Review, a process to examine states’ human rights records, has until now been truly universal: all United Nation member states were reviewed by the end of 2011 and the second cycle of reviews has already started.

But now the government of Israel is not engaging with the process. Every indication is that the Israel will not be present this afternoon when it is scheduled to be examined under the Universal Periodic Review. As the only recalcitrant state among 193, Israel’s deliberate absence would sabotage the principle of universality. Consequently the Universal Periodic Review stands to lose the compelling legitimacy it derives from being applied even-handedly to all states. Why should states that would prefer to escape scrutiny of their human rights record, or are severely resource constrained, submit to this process if Israel’s non-compliance demonstrates that it is no longer universal?

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Time to Put the Spotlight on Sri Lanka

Human Rights Activist in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan human rights activists demanding the release of all alleged political prisoners stage a protest in Colombo on July 10, 2012. (Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/GettyImages)

Sri Lanka’s human rights record doesn’t get much international attention these days. But that’s going to change on November 1 in Geneva, when the U.N. Human Rights Council examines Sri Lanka’s record as part of the Council’s “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR) procedure.

Sri Lanka has a lot to account for, especially its continuing use of security laws against peaceful, outspoken critics, including journalists. Hundreds are being detained with no charge or trial. Many detainees have been tortured while in custody, and some have even been killed. No one has been held accountable for these crimes; impunity reigns.

We have a chance on Nov. 1 to expose Sri Lanka’s shameful practices of arbitrary detention, but we need your help. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Time to End Arbitrary Detention in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan policemen stand guard over prison

Sri Lankan policemen stand guard outside the main prison in Colombo (Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Right now, hundreds of people are languishing in detention in Sri Lanka.  They haven’t been convicted of any crime; indeed, they haven’t even been charged with any crime.  Their detentions violate international law.  Many of them are tortured while in custody.  Some detainees have been killed.

More than three years after the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, security laws enacted to combat armed opposition groups continue to be used against outspoken, peaceful critics, including journalists, and others.

No one has been held accountable for these crimes. Impunity for human rights violations is the norm in Sri Lanka.

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UN Human Rights Council Reviews U.S. Human Rights Record

This past Friday, the United States appeared before the UN Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a process through which the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States are reviewed once every four years. I have come to Geneva to witness the US’s UPR first hand and to keep a spotlight on Amnesty International’s human rights concerns.

During the three-hour review, member states had the opportunity to make recommendations to the United States regarding how to improve its human rights record. Although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not allowed to speak during the actual review, they are encouraged to file “shadow reports” which outline their concerns with the US’s human rights record. These reports are compiled into a single report to the HRC.  In addition, member states frequently rely on the information in the NGO reports when deciding upon their recommendations.

The issues that Amnesty International highlighted in its UPR submission figured prominently among the recommendations. For example, the nearly unanimous recommendation of the member states was for a US moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view towards abolition.

Ratification of international instruments was also a key recommendation of the majority of states which recommended that the US ratify, in particular, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Other recommendations spanned a range of concerns from Guantanamo closure to police brutality to migrant rights.

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Las Vegas Amnesty Group's Union Rights Video Chosen By UN

Last night I attended the debut of the US Human Rights Network’s Testify! Project, a collection of videos and written testimonies exploring stories of injustice from throughout the United States. The top 10 videos and stories are being screened for United Nations delegates in Geneva, Switzerland, in preparation for the United States’ Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) which takes place tomorrow. The UPR is a process through which the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States are reviewed once every four years.

A huge shout-out to Amnesty’s very own Local Group 463 in Las Vegas, NM, whose video submission was one of the ten films selected to be shown here in Geneva, at the UN! The two-minute video, which focuses on the efforts of local hospital workers to form a union, can be viewed at www.testifyproject.com or http://ushrnetwork.org/testify/?p=431. In addition to Local Group 463’s union rights video, the video subjects spanned the spectrum of human rights from police brutality to treatment of migrants to the human right to health care.

The evening was a powerful reminder of the need for human rights implementation in the United States. Amnesty International has submitted recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council outlining how the US can and must do just that – and I have come to Geneva to help raise awareness of these issues and ensure that concrete actions are taken.
But we need your help!  Included in those recommendations is a call for President Obama to issue an Executive Order that would create an interagency working group on human rights. This working group should be comprised of representatives from every federal agency, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Justice, to help create a domestic human rights infrastructure and bring human rights home. To support our work in Geneva and help AIUSA push for this infrastructure, ask President Obama to issue an Executive Order on human rights now!

Keeping Maternal Mortality on the Agenda at UN Human Rights Meeting

Linda Coale died of a blood clot a week after giving birth to her son, Ben, by c-section. The infant welcome packet included extensive information about acclimatizing pets to a new baby, but had failed to adequately alert her to warning signs of complications, despite the heightened risk due to her surgery.

On Friday, the United States will appear before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) for its “Universal Periodic Review” (UPR).  The UPR is a process through which the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States are reviewed once every four years.

I have come to Geneva to monitor the US’s participation in the UPR and to educate both the US government and those of other member states, on Amnesty International’s concerns about the state of human rights in the United States. In April, Amnesty submitted a written report to the HRC detailing our US human rights concerns, ranging from the use of the death penalty, to the need to establish a commission of inquiry into all war on terror-related detention policies and practices, the need to bar racial profiling in law enforcement, and the need for a human rights executive order to help establish a domestic human rights infrastructure.

Today I had the opportunity to speak about another tragic human rights issue that Amnesty has been focusing on: maternal mortality in the United States.  At the event, hosted by the Center for Reproductive Rights, I featured the findings of our report, Deadly Delivery: The maternal health care crisis in the USA and discussed the maternal health crisis in the United States, particularly among marginalized communities.

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The Great Experiment?

In a recent report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,  the US touted its human rights record and argued that:

The American experiment is a human experiment; the values on which it is based, including a commitment to human rights are clearly engrained in our own national conscience…

Yet US commitment to the death penalty, which only a shrinking minority of other nations still supports, belies these grandiose words.  A commitment to executions fundamentally conflicts with a commitment to human rights.

There have been around a thousand executions since former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously declared that “the death penalty experiment has failed,” arguing succinctly that “…the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution.”

A new short Amnesty International document illustrates just how pervasive these errors are, drawing just on cases from this month.  In Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and Washington state we have seen executions scheduled, and sometimes carried out, despite blatantly atrocious lawyering, clear racial bias, and defendants whose diminished capacity should have made them ineligible for the death penalty.  These cases show that our capital punishment system continues to be “little more than a lottery, with outcomes affected by issues such as prosecutorial resources, electoral politics, race, defence representation, jury composition, and so on.”

And just yesterday we saw an inmate, Brandon Rhode, rescheduled for execution three days after his life was saved following a suicide attempt.  The cruelty and absurdity, and completely arbitrary nature of American capital punishment has been on full display this month.  If the US wants its “commitment to human rights” to be taken seriously, it will have to give up its experiment with the death penalty.

Soccer, Terrorism, Repression and Constitutions in Angola

Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos

Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos

The new decade started off with a bang in Angola-literally. Fireworks exploded in the night sky at the opening games of the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament on January 10th; and, sadly, gunfire shattered the day as the Togo soccer team was attacked on their way to participate in the tourney.

The attack on the Togo national team occurred at they traveled through the Cabinda province. Cabinda is a small spit of land separated from the northern territorial borders of Angola by the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is rich in oil and struggled with a separatist movement for many years now. Those who live in the region wish for autonomy and there is an armed rebel faction, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), that claimed responsibility for the attack on the Togolese team.

However, there are many individuals in the Cabinda region engaging in peaceful measures to demand autonomy. Journalists, lawyers, priests and citizens argue for the right of self determination. The Angolan government has harshly suppressed these individuals, denying them right of free expression and association by dispersing peaceful protests, arresting individuals and banning organizations. One journalist, Fernando Lelo, was imprisoned following an unfair trial because of his criticisms of the president.

In the wake of the Togo bus attack, the Angolan government has used anti-terrorism policies as an excuse to crack down further on peaceful activists in the region. Francisco Luemba, a prominent lawyer and former member of banned human rights organization Mpalabanda, was arrested on January 17th and charged with crimes against the state. Mpalabanda, the only human rights organization previously operating in Cabinda, was banned in 2006 following charges that the organization incited violence and hatred.

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Import Human Rights to Angola

Children living in the ruins of destroyed houses in Luanda, Angola.

Children living in the ruins of destroyed houses in Luanda, Angola.

Angola is experiencing a major revitalization as it slowly recovers from a devastating 27 year civil war that finally ended in 2002. The Africa Cup of Nations kicked off  (sorry for the soccer pun) this week: a biennial continent-wide tournament, and this year a rousing prelude to the World Cup occurring in June in South Africa. Angola is also one of the world’s top twenty crude oil exporters and a member of OPEC. This revenue stream elevates Angola’s stature as a major economic player both globally and in the region, as nations compete for Angolan oil exports.

These resulting economic ties also create political relationships. Stay with me, I am getting to my point, I promise. Angola ranks sixth in the list of countries importing oil into the United States. This means the US relies on Angola and Angola relies on the US. Thus each is in the position to influence the other on a whole host of issues. And so we have arrived: Angola is up in February for its turn under the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UN-UPR).

The UN-UPR is a process by which each member state’s human rights record is scrutinized by it’s peers. All member nations are subject to this review every four years, during which time other nations and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) can raise concerns, ask questions and make recommendations on how to improve human rights conditions. One of the concerns about the process, which has already played out during other state’s reviews, is peer nations won’t really raise the tough issues. Rather they lob soft balls (or maybe soccer balls?) for fear of damaging economic relationships or labeling as a hypocrit because of the peer nation’s own human rights record.

But it is the duty and responsibility of UN member states to hold each other accountable, and it is our onus as global citizens to make sure our governments step up to the plate. So we are calling on the US State Department to not go easy on Angola because we want it’s oil exports. Instead, we are demanding the US help ensure human rights are imported into Angola via the UPR process.

There are three major areas we call on Secretary Clinton to raise during the UPR process: forced evictions, the safety of human rights defenders and protections of freedom of expression and association. These are all areas of serious concern in Angola; people are rendered homeless for political and/or economic gain, human rights defenders experience repression and beatings as they work to hold the government accountable and journalists and citizens are imprisoned for speaking out and demanding positive change.

So stand up as a global citizen and encourage all UN member nations to not give Angola an easy pass under the UN-UPR next month and tell Secretary Clinton that the US must do it’s part! Economics is supply and demand. Instead of only demanding oil come out of Angola, let’s supply the tools to encourage human rights to come in!