UN probes US rights record

13th March 2014, Comments 0 comments

A UN watchdog body on Thursday began a review of the United States' human rights record, quizzing officials on National Security Agency surveillance, the "war on terror" and racism in the justice system.

The 18-member UN Human Rights Committee fired question after question during a session on Washington's respect for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Swiss legal expert Walter Kaelin, at the helm of the probe, welcomed a report by Washington on the issue.

"They do not shy away from setting out clearly certain shortcomings," Kaelin said as the two-day session got underway.

But he and fellow experts urged Washington to shed light on probes of the alleged use of torture techniques such as "waterboarding" during the "war on terror", the status of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan, and civilian deaths.

In addition, they raised concerns about the extent of NSA surveillance, which has made global headlines since fugitive former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposed it in 2013.

They also pressed for more information on efforts to tackle the disproportionate number of members of minority groups in prison, as well as racial profiling of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, and law enforcement abuses against illegal migrants.

And they sought more detail on the use of the death penalty, notably in cases involving minorities or convicts with mental disabilities.

Kaelin also said a more thorough approach was required to assess whether international rights rules are correctly set down in the law of and applied by the 50 individual US states.

Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's human rights programme, said he hoped the session would address Washington's "serious gaps between its rhetoric and practice".

"The US shortcomings are being highlighted by the committee's sharp questions on everything from drone killings and NSA surveillance to the humane treatment of immigrants and prisoners, especially discrimination against minorities," he told AFP in Geneva.

"This review provides the United States an opportunity to reverse course, remedy rights violations, and take concrete actions like declassifying the Senate report on CIA torture," he said.

US delegation chief Mary McLeod, principal deputy legal adviser at the State Department, and her team were to give detailed responses Friday.

But in initial answers about the "war on terror" Thursday, she stressed the strategic rethink since President Barack Obama came to power in 2009, insisting that he was striving to close Guantanamo.

She underlined that US authorities probed all claims of civilian deaths in conflict zones and prosecuted military and civilian personnel involved, and that the law banned and punished torture.

NSA surveillance was subject to "extensive oversight", she said, noting that there had been a review in 2013 of intelligence policy and its impact on privacy and civil liberties.

McLeod also stressed the US commitment to addressing "unwarranted racial disparities" in the justice system, to tackling racial profiling "aggressively" and to stemming excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.

She also pointed to a fall in the number of executions and convicts on death row, noting that 32 states now used the death penalty, down from 38 in 2000.

Like all UN members, the United States is meant to submit to periodic reviews of its respect for the rights rules.

A planned October 2013 review had to be postponed, however, due to the US shutdown amid a budget impasse as Republican lawmakers battled Obama's signature health care reform.

© 2014 AFP

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