Historical Review of U.S. Human Rights Record Ready for November 5 in Geneva

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Joshua Cooper
Director Four Freedoms Forum
Director Hawaii Institute for Human Rights

All of the stakeholders in the Universal Periodic Review for the United States of America have completed the first phase of preparation for a constructive review in the historical national and global conversation about human rights in America.

A large number of civil society organizations submitted written reports based on community dialogues and in-depth research through the United States Human Rights Network. More popular methods of public participation were also received through a Testify! Project with videos posted on YouTube illuminating the issues of human rights.

The United States of America made history by submitting its state report on time with the United Nations. The U.S. state department also involved more domestic agencies necessary to realize human rights in our borders including Justice and Housing in consultation with civil society.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights can also compile their report based on numerous visits from UN Special Rapporteurs coming to our country visiting communities to tackle themes of right to housing, migrants rights, racial discrimination and extra-judicial, summary and arbitrary executions to cite a few.  There are also the recommendations from the three UN human rights treaty bodies recommendations issued in response to the US tardy reports and the government defense of national laws.

Together, the three different reports will be the basis for the conversation among countries with the United States in the new human rights mechanism known as the Universal Periodic Review.

Equally significant is even the UPR is starting to be reported on in the media in the United States. Unfortunately, it is only the Wall Street Journal and FoxTV covering the process through its conservative lens. They both challenge the US to be a stand alone superpower claiming the US doesn’t have to report to anyone. Even though the UPR like all of the other UN human rights treaty bodies processes are accountable not to other countries but to the citizens of the state.

The UPR is an excellent endeavor for government to measure its ability to meet its promises to its people. The UPR should be the catalyst for taking time from all of the other distractions in our democracy to have a national conversation with citizens engaging in an honest exchange about human rights. In the end, it is the US citizens that are the main stakeholders not other states. The U.S. government should be responsible to realize the rights of its people not to other phantom powers.

So far, the UPR process in the United States of America illustrates the intent behind the will of ‘we the people’ to be the agents for social change starting in our communities based on the values of the country, the voice of the citizens and the vision enshrined in the constitution.

The common cornerstone for our national dialogue is the three reports. Two are based entirely on what Americans have to say about themselves. Both result from us talking to each other and taking an honest assessment of how much we have achieved and how much further we have to actually aim to reach our aspirations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The stakeholder report should be citizens talking to each other about issues that concern them framing questions to be considered. The government report should be based on broad consultation at the national level with all stakeholders to listen to its citizens.

The result of both processes is a set of priorities and policy recommendations for us to strive for together for an even better America. The true exceptionalism of the US is its willingness to keep working together to continue to question ourselves and take actions to ensure equality for all. Our founding principles provided a framework for dignity, fairness and opportunity for people to live a life of liberty contributing collectively for a better society for all people. Our heritage is human rights.  Through a periodic discussion we keep our promise to our founding fathers and our future generations for dignity to continue at the core of our democracy.

It’s a promise that empowers everyone in our nation to inspire individual and collective ingenuity for optimal opportunity. Through periodic reviews as a people of everyone with our elected officials recommendations highlight potential progress points needed on particular national policies and practices. The UN has no enforcement authority due to its member states. Most important for the UPR and other human rights treaties, each country decides the next steps to initiate implementation and inspire innovation to improve on the core principles enshrined in the historical declaration in a nation’s history from the Declaration of Independence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which both defined the greatness of a government geared toward equality, dignity and justice for all.

The UPR is a central commitment to our citizens not the distraction of a statement by a repressive regime that matters. Our democracy is too important to be distracted from our core concerns to our citizens to live a life in fairness and freedom enshrined in our Constitution. As a great Republican President Abraham Lincoln captured the conscience of the country and the world with the Gettysburg Address in November 1863 about our nation to “…have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” That is the essence of the UPR to review the principles and provide recommendation that our government keeps its promises to the people.

The Universal Periodic Review allows for Americans to judge our commitment to justice. The UPR is only one measurement but a voluntary means between people and politicians to make human rights a priority and to not forget its pivotal position in the creation of the country. So far, the United States of America is illustrating the intent of the new instrument well.

The people have exercised their civil and political rights through freedom of thought, speech and assembly to create a conversation among the citizens to agree on two dozen common cluster reports.  Since August 2009, 14 individuals representing their respective constituencies dotting our democracy have steered civil society to communicate about the potential and the purpose of the UPR through the USHRN Steering Committee. The result being extremely well researched reports representing the will of over 160 NGOs consisting of professionals, professors and people pouring their hearts into human rights for all Americans.  Equally significant is the thousand endorsements by even a wider array of Americans not able to draft the reports but who read the over 2,000 pages of reports complete with detailed footnotes.  Through popular media and technology, even more Americans can read these reports for free. The USHRN released a comprehensive report that is available at: http://www.ushrnetwork.org/upr_reports. Anyone can contact the advocates and authors by sending emails to continue the conversation regarding the important issues. This is our democracy living and thriving continuing the legacy of liberty through the UPR.

Beyond the traditional means of researched reports, the USHRN has popularized human rights reporting with the Testify! Project.  Anyone can submit one page testimonials and two-minute videos on human rights issues in our communities. Community association and college students ensured their issues are included in the nationwide dialogue via video submissions. The videos allow everyone to get a message representing their movement via testimonials or creative story telling in their communities allowing everyone to see the human rights situation through their eyes.  Even more important, the videos can offer recommendations to promote positive social change in the United States of America.

All Americans can vote now for their favorite video and even submit videos before October 8 one month prior to the actual review of the United States at the UPR on November 5.

The first round of the Testify! Project has resulted in the human rights challenges facing tomato pickers to be featured at the 15th UN Human Rights Council session during the USHRN side event.  The human right to work with dignity will be featured. Over 50 submissions were received and narrowed to six by public voting. Then a panel of judges with experienced in equality campaigns and video advocacy selected Florida migrant farm worker Romeo Ramirez and the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.  The video described how his work puts food on tables across the U.S. However, Ramirez and fellow workers can barely feed their own families in Florida.

View Ramirez’s video at www.TestifyProject.com. To vote for your favorite video, find your preferred video and click “I love it” on www.YouTube.com/group/testifytotheUN, “Like” on www.Facebook.com/testifyproject.com. All videos can also be viewed at www.TestifyProject.com.

It is still possible to participate in the national video contest. Grab a camera and tell your government what the challenges are but also what recommendations can improve the condition in our country.  Ten of the videos submitted will be shown in Geneva at the UPR review of the US. Also a compilation of all videos received will be edited to be shown at the Fundamental Freedoms Film Festival in Geneva during the first week of November.

Civil society did meet the deadlines submitting the researched reports. It is an important role for citizens in our democracy as John F. Kennedy noted, at Amherst College in 1963,  “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable…”

The work of civil society will also be reflected in the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report. The US civil society has hosted a handful of special rapporteurs coordinating visits across the country. The US civil society also submitted shadow reports providing updated information relating to racial discrimination, civil and political rights and torture to the UN human rights treaty bodies. The recommendations from the various UN mechanisms will also be compiled into a ten page report offering insight to issues that could be highlighted at the UPR in November.

The United States of America government did fulfill the guidelines of the UPR hosting UPR civil society consultations between January and May 2010.  The US held 11 consultations that they described as a listening tour in nine cities across America.

The schedule began in New Orleans and concluded in Washington D.C.  The US included in its delegation key administrative agencies covering Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, Housing and Health as they visited the border in El Paso and Indian reservations in New Mexico.  They also visited the cities with the challenges of racial discrimination and poverty reduction such as Detroit, Chicago, Birmingham and Washington D.C. They also solicited civil society to assist in hosting the consultations. The State Department’s report, as well as the summaries of the onsite civil society consultations are available on its website at: http://www.state.gover/drl/upr/index.htm.

The US did solicit input during the consultation tour with the American public. Many states participating in the UPR don’t live up to such a standard.  However, we owe it to our people to strive to realize human rights standards set forth in the US Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights along with the International Bill of Rights including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, America’s leaders helped shape.

As noted in the overarching UPR report, “The USHRN recognizes the U.S. Government’s efforts to engage civil society in onsite consultations, or listening sessions, throughout the country from February through April of this year as part of the UPR.

While these consultations, the first of their kind, represent a positive step toward engaging with civil society in the U.S., they brought into sharp focus the need for ongoing open and transparent dialogue among members of affected communities and representatives from the federal, state, and local agencies, to collectively develop and implement durable solutions to the human rights concerns raised in this UPR process and beyond.  In demonstrating its commitment to human rights and to inclusive and meaningful participation of civil society, we call upon the U.S. to recognize and act upon the need for: greater transparency in the selection of locations and agenda setting for the consultations, and more advanced notice to allow for more a more fully-participatory and inclusive process.” Other NGOs also had critical words pointing out the input was not included in the final report of the US government.

What is essential is that the three reports create the basis for the conversation among the countries of the world through the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the UPR.  Each report and more importantly the questions and recommendations are rooted in the work and words of US civil society that prepared the reports and then crafted one page summaries stating issues, questions and recommendations to be shared with states to pose to the U.S.

As Sarah Paoletti, Senior Coordinator, of the USHRN UPR Project, wrote, “The United States stands at an historic crossroads, and the Obama administration’s State Department has recognized that to regain our role as a world leader, we need to re-engage with the international community around the full set of civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights that are central to a functioning and vibrant democracy.”  It is vital that the US leads by example and most important that US citizens exercise their right to continue the tradition to realize our democratic dreams.  Paoletti notes what is necessary for our nation to truly be a leader for liberty, “To admit that the U.S. could do more to improve upon its human rights record, so long as that admission is followed with a plan of action, can only serve as a valuable example to the rest of the world community and will strengthen the nation, not weaken it.”

The United States is proving it is still possible to not forget our commitment to our citizens. The US NGOs are active in the review of the US. However, we have also been involved in the review of dozens of other countries where they fail to protect the fundamental freedoms of their people. We uphold the principles of freedom for all. The citizens continue to live by the words Thomas Paine concluded Common Sense, “…ye may always full and uninterruptedly enjoy every civil and religious right; and be, in your turn, the means of securing it to others…”

The UPR will continue the tradition of what makes America a legacy of liberty. Only be engaging do we ensure equality.

On November 5, the whole world can watch the US human rights record to be reviewed on the UN webcast. Many will ignore the issues citing the lack of human rights in countries addressing the U.S. It is important to remember the core of the conversation is rooted in the reports of US citizens in the spirit of the US Declaration of Independence. We take our actions in the truth of equality with certain inalienable rights. We know and demand for all governments including our own to remember the rights in the Declaration, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.”

Our consent is measured through our participation in the UPR process. This inaugural UPR cycle is our first attempt along with the rest of the world to support human rights. Civil society and states can improve on the process to ensure equality and demand dignity for all people on the planet.

From November through March, it is essential for the US to continue its conversation with its citizens. It is an important time to continue to talk in the towns it held listening sessions and respond with results based on the cumulative communication regarding human rights. In March, the adoption of the review report will provide recommendations rooted in civil society’s reports.  Some ideas for initiatives could be a national human rights institution to implement the recommendations. The U.S. could also ratify more international instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The US and Somalia are the last two states in the world and the US has already participated with the Committee on the Rights of the Child through its reports on the two optional protocols. The US could also adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Most importantly, the UPR has been an opportunity for us as a nation to focus on freedom. The UPR is where NGOs speak honestly about our circumstances and conditions with the aspiration to achieve a better life for our fellow world citizens in every nation beginning at home.

The 26 cluster reports submitted by the US Human Rights Network:

Civil Rights: (mblanco@lawyerscommittee.org)

CERD Implementation: (ramona.ortega@gmail.com)

Corporate Accountability: (NLUSIANI@ESCR-NET.ORG)

Criminal Justice: (jkent@endjlwop.org)

Death Penalty: (s-babcock@law.northwestern.edu)

Disability Rights: (tminkowitz@earthlink.net)

Economic and Social Rights: (anja@nesri.org)

Education: (hchouest@prrac.org)

Environmental Justice:  (gkearney@nylpi.org and cfarrell@crpe-ej.org)

Foreign Policy: (marjorielegal@gmail.com)

Housing Rights:(etars@nlchp.org)

Hurricane Katrina Aftermath:(mharden-aehr@cox.net)

Indigenous People’s Rights: (alberto@treatycouncil.org)

Labor Rights:(angela-cornell@lawschool.cornell.edu

LGBT Rights: (julie@globalequality.org)

Macroeconomics: (mbaruch@rci.rutgers.edu

Migrant Labor Rights: (paoletti@law.upenn.edu)

Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers: (JPrestholdt@advrights.org)

Police Abuses (NYC): (NZamani@ccrjustice.org)

Political Repression: (enjerichow@aol.com)

Racial Disparities in Access/Enjoyment to Health: (vrrandall@gmail.com)

Racial Profiling:(asingh@rightsworkinggroup.org)

Reproductive Rights:(mmovahed@reprorights.org)

Right to Decent Work: (edike@urbanjustice.org)

Treaty Ratification:(JWard@law.columbia.edu)

U.S. Political Prisoners: (swillis818@aol.com and enjerichow@aol.com).

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