USA: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Human Rights

September 16, 2013

USA: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Human Rights

View More Research

A submission to the UN Human Rights Committee for the 109th session of the Committee (14 October to 1 November 2013)

In its Common Core Document submitted with its Fourth Periodic Report to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee (the Human Rights Committee or the Committee), the USA asserts that it is a "nation built on the moral truths of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and is committed to "the cause of human rights" and to "international human rights law". The USA was indeed one of the countries instrumental in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration, and its modern history includes examples of remarkable advocacy and progress for human rights.

The USA ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in June 1992. Two decades later, the USA is failing to live up to its human rights obligations on a range of issues. This submission highlights a number of concerns under domestic law and practice, from long-term isolation against prisoners in maximum security prisons, to the treatment of immigrants, to the abuse of electro-shock weapons in law enforcement. Amnesty International has submitted a separate document on the death penalty.

This submission also addresses certain US counter-terrorism policies and practices. In the past decade, the USA's response to the crime against humanity committed on 11 September 2001 (9/11) has amounted to an assault on human rights principles. This response was itself built on the USA's long-standing reluctance to bind its own conduct to international human rights law. This antipathy was present in the USA's ratification of the ICCPR, which was freighted with numerous limiting conditions, including a reservation to the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and a declaration – amounting to a reservation – that "the provisions of articles 1 through 27 of the Covenant are not selfexecuting", that is, none of the substantive provisions of the ICCPR would be enforceable in the US courts. The absence of implementing legislation means that this remains the case.

The USA's post-9/11 assault on human rights principles continued even after the Human Rights Committee reviewed the USA's combined Second and Third Periodic Reports in 2006, although some – but not all – of the policies and practices criticized by the Committee were ended by executive order in 2009. Moreover, there has been no real progress since 2006 towards full accountability for crimes under international law committed by US personnel in the counter-terrorism context, particularly in relation to the programme of secret detention operated under presidential authority by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and authorized until 2009. Additionally, US courts have systematically refused to hear the merits of lawsuits seeking redress for egregious human rights violations committed in this programme and the wider counter-terrorism context. The courts have done so at the urging of government lawyers, citing national security secrecy and various forms of immunity under US law.

It is worth recalling how 21 years ago, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations met to consider the ICCPR, and voted to recommend ratification. Noting that more than 100 countries had already ratified the treaty, its report of that meeting asserted the following:

"In view of the leading role that the United States plays in the international struggle for human rights, the absence of US ratification of the Covenant is conspicuous and, in the view of many, hypocritical. The Committee believes that ratification will remove doubts about the seriousness of the US commitment to human rights and strengthen the impact of US efforts in the human rights field."

Each year since 1977, the year that the USA signed the ICCPR, the US Department of State has published an assessment of the human records of other countries, as measured against the provisions of the Universal Declaration, the ICCPR and other international instruments. For example, an entry in the report covering the year 2002 documented that: