On November 5, the United States will face the first review of its human rights record under the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a new mechanism, instituted in 2006, but UN efforts to monitor human rights date back almost as far as the institution’s founding. The charter establishing the United Nations was ratified in 1945. The following year, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) formed the UN Commission on Human Rights, the first international body mandated to investigate and report on human rights concerns worldwide.

By the 1970s, the Commission was widely seen as overly politicized and ineffectual. Countries with poor human rights records, like Sudan and Zimbabwe, joined the Com-mission and used their influence to block resolutions critical of human rights abusers. In 2006, Member States voted overwhelmingly to disband the Commission and replace it with the Human Rights Council (HRC). The US administration at the time was skeptical of the HRC and chose not to pursue a seat on the Council. However, the Obama administration reversed this course, and in June 2009 the United States took a seat on the 47-member council.

The first UPR session took place in April 2008, following a procedure laid out in the resolution forming the HRC. Under the UPR, every UN Member has its human rights record evaluated every four years. The process is conceived as a dialogue whereby any UN Member State may submit questions and make recommendations to a Member under review, which may then respond. In preparation for the UPR, a country under review produces a report detailing its human rights record. NGOs may also make submissions, recommendations from which are compiled into a single document by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Cultural Differences, Universal Rights

A common objection to UN human rights mechanisms is that they do not account for different cultural values. This argument is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, even the most just societies must weigh a range of competing societal interests, and no two cultures ever strike exactly the same balance. On the other hand, if “cultural difference” is used to defend horrors such as genocide, then the notion of universal rights has no meaning at all.

In their human rights policy, of course, countries do not simply abide by cultural norms, but also agree to a framework of national laws and international treaties with specific obligations. The United States is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It has signed, but not ratified, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). China, by contrast, is a party to the ICESCR and has signed but not ratified the ICCPR.

Disagreements between the United States and China on the subject of human rights often degenerate into talking points on the relative importance of these two covenants and the values they embody. The US government regularly takes China to task for its repression of political dissidents. And every year the US State Department issues a human rights report highlighting civil and political concerns in China. Like clockwork, China responds with a report on the United States that points out concerns about economic and social problems like racial discrimination, crime, and economic inequality.

This division between the West and China was evident at China’s first UPR, which occurred on February 9, 2009. Before the review, the Chinese team had carried out diplomatic efforts to get other countries, especially those in Asia and Africa, to show support for China’s human rights record. Sixty delegations made comments at China’s UPR (the United States was not one of them). Of the countries that supplied input, a deep chasm existed between those who were openly critical of China’s political and civil rights record and those who praised China’s economic and social development. Some praise seemed to confirm human rights watchers’ worst fears about a politicized UPR process. China accepted “human rights recommendations” such as Egypt’s encouragement to continue to implement the policy of strictly applying the death penalty and Sudan’s praise for its use of re-education through labor. Meanwhile, China rejected recommendations to expand press freedoms, strengthen due process, and increase transparency.

A politicized UPR climate is worrisome not only because it offers human rights offenders a platform to defend outlandish assertions—such as North Korea’s contention that it guarantees “the right to elect and to be elected, the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, demonstration and association, [and] the rights to com-plaints and petitions”—but also since it may well create defensiveness on the part of countries that have strong human rights records but should still strive to improve. This is certainly the case with the review of the United States.

This September, the United States released its national report in anticipation of its UPR. The report emphasizes the unique qualities of American history and the deep respect for human rights laid out in the nation’s founding documents. It acknowledges the legacy of discrimination and points out efforts to increase fairness and equality with regard to race, gender, and sexual orientation. It also discusses some more controversial policies, such as the operation of the detention center in Guantánamo Bay and treatment of illegal immigrants.

Expecting that the United States will experience a disproportionately intense barrage of criticism at the UPR by participants antagonistic to US policies, many American observers worry that overly hostile criticism will further alienate the United States from the process. These concerns have merit, but Dui Hua hopes that the UPR process can help the United States—as well as all countries under review—come closer to reaching the goal of universal human rights.

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