Friday, November 12, 2010

No Immunity For Ordering Torture

According to Dan Froomkin:

British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson was quoted in the British press this week as saying Bush's admission could leave him open to arrest and possible prosecution if he visits countries that have ratified the UN torture convention.

That includes a good chunk of the globe.

"George W Bush has confessed to ordering waterboarding, which in the view of almost all experts clearly passes the severe pain threshold in the definition of torture in international law," Robertson said. "[H]e is an ex-head of state so he is not entitled to immunity from arrest and trial."

Robertson added: "So his retirement travel plans may well be circumscribed, although he never ventured abroad before he became President, and no doubt made the statements in his book having been advised of this potential consequence."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Congratulations to New UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

Juan Méndez of Argentina has received numerous awards and recognitions for his work to promote human rights and end torture. Many people may not know, however, that the Visiting Professor of Law at American University, Washington College of Law and former president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, is himself a survivor of torture.

"Mr. Méndez has dedicated his long legal career to the defence of human rights and has a distinguished record of advocacy. As a result of his work representing political prisoners, he was subjected to torture, while under an eighteen month long administrative detention, by the Argentinean military dictatorship. During this time, Amnesty International adopted him as a “Prisoner of Conscience.” In 1977, he was expelled from Argentina and moved to the United States, where he worked in different capacities, including as legal counsel for Human Rights Watch."

Now, he will serve as the United Nation's resident expert on torture worldwide. In that role, he will conduct investigations, report to the UN's human rights structures, and make recommendations. He also says that he hopes to have an impact "beyond law." In a press release, Mr. Méndez stressed,
“we need to do battle in the realm of ideas and political discourse, to counter an attitude of relativism about torture, as something that happens to ‘others’ whose faces we don’t see and whose names we can’t pronounce.”

Congratulations on this new post -- another milestone an admirable career promoting human rights.

For more information, click here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Damn right" couldn't be more wrong.

According to the Washington Post, former President Bush not only admits to ordering torture in his upcoming memoir, he is proud of it. The article says that when asked whether approved the CIA's use of waterboarding against 9/11 suspect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, he replied, "Damn right."

How can he get it so wrong? Waterboarding is torture, which is illegal and immoral under all circumstances. Period.

Statements like these also put U.S. national security at risk. As the Executive Director of the Center for Victims of Torture says, "This cavalier attitude by the President who authorized torture in violation of U.S. and international law not only damages our nation’s credibility throughout the world, but also discourages global cooperation to combat
terrorism. It was only last week the U.S. was reminded that to protect our country from terrorists, and to collect vital information, we need the trust of individuals and governments worldwide. The bombs shipped on airplanes bound for the U.S. were stopped because of the cooperation of foreign intelligence services. The U.S. stands the best chance of becoming the ally of more people around the world—people who can join us in the fight against terrorism—by rejecting torture. This effort is severely hampered when our leaders makes such careless and rash remarks without realizing the harmful impact on America’s security."

If you need evidence to back up this statement, just look to the many questions U.S. allies posed during last week's UPR about closing Guantanamo and ending torture. These questions came from concerns that other democracies share about how the U.S. has undermined global efforts to end torture, and how the facts revealed about U.S. use of torture has been used to drum up antagonism toward the U.S. and other western democracies.

Former President Bush's statement shows exactly why an independent non-partisan commission tasked with examining and reporting publicly on torture and cruel treatment of prisoners is needed, and why that investigation ought to look at command responsibility, not just the lower ranking officers who carried out torture.

Human Rights USA's clients who have survived torture at the hands of foreign government officials look to the U.S. to be a positive force for ending torture worldwide. They demand, and deserve, accountability to ensure that the U.S. never again sinks to these tactics.

Monday, November 8, 2010

But what did Ireland say?

Media coverage of the UN Universal Periodic Review of the US has focused on the criticisms from countries that have poor human rights records. But there's been very little mention of the recommendations from democracies. Here's what the governments the US works alongside to promote global human rights said:

CANADA: "Canada encourages the United States to continue its efforts to realize universal human rights by: (a) ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; (b) becoming a Party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; (c) acceding to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and (d) ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We would appreciate any further detailed updates on the consideration of these issues and steps to bring domestic legislation in line with U.S. international obligations. Canada is pleased by the active re-engagement in the Human Rights Council by the United States and looks forward to working together in the promotion and protection of human rights internationally."

IRELAND: "... We recommend that the US halt all transfers of detainees to third countries unless there are adequate safeguards to ensure that they will be treated in accordance with international law requirements.... We strongly recommend that the United States proceed with the closure of Guantanamo at the earliest date and bring to trial promptly in accordance with the applicable rules of international law the detainees held there or release them.... Ireland asks whether the United States intends to proceed to the introduction of a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty..."

ITALY: "Recommends the adoption of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view to abolishing capital punishment.... Will the US consider to accede or ratify the following human rights and other instruments: the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court."

AUSTRALIA: "Abolish the death penalty.... comprehensively address discrimination against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity... become a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities."

ISRAEL: "We welcome the candid and professional engagement of the United States in this exercise and their constructive review of their human rights record.... We welcome the intense efforts by the United States to undertake all necessary measures to ensure fair and equal treatment for all persons, without regard to sex, race, religion, color, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, and encourage further steps in this regard.... asking the delegation to further elaborate on the U.S. experience in human rights education."

And on it goes... Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, all welcomed US participation in the UPR process and made similar comments and recommendations.

The full report will be published tomorrow and the US will go back to the Human Rights Council in 2011 to declare which recommendations the government accepts and which it does not. One hopes that the recommendations from other democracies will be taken seriously.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Join the discussion about the UPR - interactive webcast

Here is the US Government opening statement made during the UPR this morning

And here is how you can participate in the town hall today

Instructions: Visit on Friday, November 5 at 10:30 am EDT (14:30 GMT/15:30 Geneva). “Enter as a visitor” by simply typing in your name and selecting “Enter Room”.

To submit your questions in advance, simply post your question below, or in the chat room at

What would you ask the US Government about its human rights policies?

At this morning's UPR, the US delegation (which included representatives from 11 federal agencies and departments, 2 members of civil society, and a local government representative) heard a steady stream of questions that can be summarized in one sentiment: "Please work with us."

Almost every country asked the United States to work toward ending the death penalty, since we are one of the few that still use it.

Almost every country asked the United States to join the core human rights treaties and declarations that protect women's rights, children's rights, the rights of persons with disabilities, rights of workers, economic, social, and cultural rights, and indigenous rights.

Almost every country noted the need to address discrimination throughout American society, the need to hold government officials who commit human rights abuses accountable, and the problem of racial profiling.

It was clear from the discussions that the world wants the U.S. to return to its role as a human rights leader. Now the challenge is to make that real.

Later today the U.S. Department of State is hosting a "town hall" meeting with NGOs here in Geneva. It will be live broadcast from the Department's website starting at 10:30 Eastern time. From what I've been told, the webcast viewers can submit questions too.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Let the UN Criticize Us"

From the New York Times:

US Invites the World's Questions

Here is an article about the UPR process

How do the elections affect human rights?

I've heard this question asked many times here in Geneva, and the answer depends on who you ask. People working to improve labor rights are going to give you a very different answer from those who advocate for stronger protections for child soldiers, for example.

Here's my response:

It doesn't make much difference at all. Human rights transcend partisanship. It takes broad bi-partisan support to ratify a human rights treaty: 67 senators have to vote yea. And there is bi-partisan support for human rights. Maybe not 2/3 of the Senate... but still.

And anyway, most of Human Rights USA's work is in the courts. So the changing makeup of the Congress has little direct impact on the cases we are litigating.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

World Watching the US - Elections and the UPR

The top story on the TV news here in Geneva is the U.S. election results. So maybe it shouldn't surprise us that there has been a strong response to the educational sessions that American advocacy groups have organized at the UN this week. On Tuesday, the Center for Reproductive Rights hosted a panel called "Heightened Obstacles, Heightened Obligations: Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health Care for Marginalized Populations in the U.S." Presenters included Cynthia Soohoo of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Cristina Finch from Amnesty International USA, RJ Thompson of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, and Renee Chelian of Northland Family Planning. These speakers talked about the significant and unnecessary challenges to accessing health care that are a reality for many people because of their race, gender, income, geography, and other factors, and made recommendations on steps the U.S. government should take to address these concerns - and save lives.

The next event highlighted the human rights dimensions of the housing crisis in the U.S. Eric Tars from the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty outlined specific problems where implementing internationally recognized human rights principles would improve access to shelter. Tyler Chase screened a new documentary about forced evictions in the U.S., documenting first hand how devastating that is.

You can watch these events and others on the US Human Rights Network's YouTube channel.

More UN members are posting their advance questions for the UPR. You can read them here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

US Human Rights Take Center Stage at UN This Week

Greetings from Geneva! I’m here because United Nations Human Rights Council is going to hold a hearing on the United States’ human rights record on Friday, November 5. This process is called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

Universal = every member of the UN goes through this process
Periodic = every four years
Review = the UN considers the government’s compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, which together cover the full range of international human rights, and makes recommendations for improvements.

I’m here in person because the UPR is a chance to educate other countries on the human rights situation in the US, so that this isn’t just about politics, but about real people who are falling through the gaps in the protections available in the US and in our global policies. Also, being part of the process can help improve it.

There are critical human rights issues to discuss. The U.S. has not ratified several key treaties that the rest of the world considers no-brainers: the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), just to name the most obvious ones. Even the treaties we have adopted haven’t been fully incorporated into U.S. laws. That makes Human Rights USA’s work a lot harder. When survivors of human rights abuses ask us to represent them in court, we often have to tell them those rights are just on paper -- there isn’t a way to assert their rights under the treaties in a U.S. court.

Lots of other advocates from the U.S. are here too -- many (like me) with coordination and support from the US Human Rights Network. We have organized a series of educational events on all kinds of issues: discrimination, migrant workers, housing rights, political repression, corporate accountability, labor rights… some of them are blogging too, like Eric Tars from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, whose video blogs you can watch here. As I have more links, I’ll share them.