US Undergoes International Review on Human Rights at the UN

The United States government faced a second day of scrutiny about its human rights record as the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded its review for compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) treaty.

The ICCPR is multilateral treaty ratified by the United States Senate in 1992, though with several exceptions.  The treaty focuses on key issues of human, civil and political rights.  Countries that have ratified the treaty are subject to a compliance review every five years.

The US has sent a delegation of leaders from both the federal government as well as representatives from state and local governments to respond to questions from the Committee during the review process.  Representatives include Roy Austin, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights and Jim Hood, Mississippi Attorney General.

Topic of inquiry during the two-day review incuded the school to prison pipeline, racial profiling and voter suppression, specifically felony disenfranchisement. One Committee member asked for specific plans for reinstating voting restoration procedures for formerly incarcerated persons.

“The continued practice of felony disenfranchisement in the United States not only diminishes our democracy, but also violates the tenants of the ICCPR treaty,” stated Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP Sr. Director for the Voting Rights Initiative.  Eddy has led four delegations to the UN, lobbying for review of US felony disenfranchisement laws.   “It is our hope that our federal and state governments will continue to strive to eradicate this practice, bringing us closer to a stronger democracy and in full compliance with the ICCPR treaty.” 

Representatives of the Florida Legal Aid Society, the University of Miami Law School and the Dream Defenders are also in Geneva challenging the US on stand your ground laws.

"Our fundamental and inalienable right to life is being taken from us, and we will leave no stone unturned in getting it back" noted Ahmad Abuznaid, Legal & Policy Director for the Dream Defenders. Last year, the Dream Defenders held a sit-in protest at the Florida Capitol in response to the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

During the hearings, UN Human Rights Committee Member Walter Kaelin  stated that “Stand your ground laws are incompatible with ICCPR Covenant Article 6 providing an inherent right to life.” On the second day of the hearing, Committee Member Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Rescia questioned zero tolerance school dicipline policies and referenced the effort in Florida by the Ft. Lauderdale/ Broward County NAACP to close the school to prison pipeline. Perhaps most significantly, the Committee raised the issue of the impact felony disenfrachisment has on citizens.

Several impacted citizens attended the treaty review to serve as tangible reminders of the human rights issues in the country.

“I spent 6.5 years in federal prison and in Dec. 2000, President Clinton granted me executive clemency,” stated Kemba Smith during remarks before the Deputy High Commissioner for the UN Human Rights Committee. Since her release, Smith has become a national public speaker talking to youth in particular young women about the drug laws and making healthy choices. “My prison experience has prompted me to be a voice not only for those that are still fighting for their freedom, but I also am a voice for the over 5 million individuals who are disenfranchised and have permanently been barred from voting for life.”

Desmond Meade, President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition also shared his experience before the Committee providing the stark statistics about the size of his state’s disenfranchised population.  “I am among the over 1.54 million Floridians who are denied the right to vote. Florida disenfranchises more individuals than the population of 80 nations.”

The review process is heavily informed by nongovernmental organizations, like the NAACP and the ACLU, that provide expert guidance on areas where the United States is falling behind on its treaty obligations.  These groups submitted dozens of shadow reports were submitted by on dozens of issues.

This is the first of three treaty compliance reviews for the United States this year.   The UN will review the United States on International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) treaty next, followed by the United Nations Convention against Torture.  According to Gabriella Habtom, Secretary to UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, three treaty compliance reviews in one year is uncommon.

After the ICCPR review hearings, the Human Rights Committee will analyze the responses from the U.S. government and will provide recommendations called concluding observations to increase compliance with the ICCPR treaty.