United States Prepares to be Criticized on Human Rights by Other Countries

By | February 6, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. February 7 (C-Fam) Last week, the U.S. Department of State hosted a meeting for civil society representatives in advance of the U.S.’s third appearance at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which fellow countries review its human rights record at the UN in Geneva.

The meeting was an off-the-record listening session hosted by representatives of several U.S. government agencies.  The topics raised included immigration, the death penalty, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, as well as social issues including abortion, prostitution, and the rights of persons who identify as LGBTI.

In the UPR, the 193 member states at the UN are scrutinized on their compliance with human rights obligations in a five-year cycle.  It is one of the major projects of the Human Rights Council, based in Geneva. The U.S. withdrew from the council in 2018 in protest of its disproportionate criticism of Israel and the inclusion of notorious human rights abusers among its members.  Nevertheless, the U.S. remains actively engaged in the UPR process, delivering statements and recommendations to each country under review.

In the months leading up to the U.S.’s turn to be reviewed, civil society organizations have submitted statements, UN agencies will compile a report on the U.S.’s reviews by their own experts, and the U.S. will also submit its own official report.  On May 11, having reviewed these inputs, fellow member states will offer their own recommendations.

In its prior two reviews, the U.S. faced criticism by a handful of European countries on its pro-life laws: specifically, the Helms Amendment to the foreign assistance law that bars U.S. funding for overseas abortions.  The U.S. State Department, then led by the Obama administration, responded that it could not support these recommendations, as they were incompatible with existing law.

Pro-life organizations are hopeful that the Trump administration will issue a full-throated defense of both the existing law and the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy, both of which are likely to face criticism during the UPR.

While the UPR is ostensibly about encouraging nations to fulfill their obligations with regard to the human rights treaties they have ratified, countries frequently use the mechanism to advance issues that are not yet universally accepted as human rights, such as a right to abortion or the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as international nondiscrimination categories.

At the UPR, the U.S. will likely face multiple calls to ratify more UN human rights treaties, another type of recommendation that is difficult to characterize as an obligation.  The U.S. is famously reluctant to ratify these binding instruments, having ratified only three of the nine core UN human rights conventions.

U.S. officials have repeatedly denounced the notion of an international human right to abortion, and have called for the deletion of “reproductive health” language in UN negotiations due to its association with abortion.  However, the U.S. has also used the UPR to promote the decriminalization of homosexuality, leading some to question what human rights obligation is implicated in that campaign.

In the most recent session of the UPR, which concluded last week, the U.S. called on four of the fourteen countries under review to revise their laws against same-sex relations.

After the U.S.’s review is concluded, the State Department will review the recommendations it received and respond to them individually by either “supporting” or “noting” them.