The 2nd Universal Periodic Review of the United States

I’m going to spend one post specifically explaining what the UPR is, what it’s like to participate in the UN Human Rights Council, and how today’s review of the United States went.

The Universal Periodic Review

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Universal Periodic Review process which allows for its 193 member states to be evaluated by one another on their human rights failures, successes, and on-going efforts.  The cycles were every 4.5 years – now every 3.5.  They begin with a national report from the country to be reviewed, pre-submitted questions by the working member states, and a written report summarizing the findings after the UPR by the “troika” – a unit of three pre-selected member states, different per each review.  Essentially, the Universal Periodic Review is an opportunity for countries to openly discuss and make recommendations for one another under constructive criticism.  The idea is that the UPR sessions are reasonably short and efficient, but that they can make huge strides towards achieving a universal and international standard for human rights across all of the member states in the United Nations.

Participating in the UN Human Rights Council

There are two ways really of participating in the Human Rights Council: as a delegate, or as a civilian.  This year, I was fortunate enough to participate as part of the civilian society.  I have not been working towards this HRC nearly as long as the others (most have been strategizing for more than a year, at least), however I was asked to represent the Southeast Indigenous Peoples’ Center which had already been submitting shadow reports in previous events, like the Permanent Forum in April.  My involvement began when I wrote a supplement report for their specific concerns with indigenous human rights disparages.

The UN Human Rights Council occurs in Geneva, Switzerland.  It’s actually very easy to get to: the airport is right there on the edge of Geneva, you can get a free train/bus pass from a kiosk when you first arrive, and the stop “Nation” takes you directly to the square in front of the UN Headquarters (where you will see the classic rows of member state flags).

(Funny side story: One of the art pieces in the square is a giant “wooden” chair with one of the legs busted out.  I overheard today that one of the delegates was standing in the square this week and complaining that they still hadn’t fixed the chair.  Apparently he thought a car had gone off the street and hit it, hahaha!)

Once you get to Nation Square, unless you have a very special UN pass, you have to use the side entrance.  I think one of the bus lines takes you there, but I always just walked.  You go to the left of the UN and walk a fair distance up the hillside to the gated entrance directly across from the Red Cross building.  There, you will find several lines depending on what kind of pass you have (if you even have one yet).  The gates to the right that do not go through security are like the ones at the front of the building – most special access only.

When I first arrived, I didn’t have a badge.  I had to go through security and to the desk inside to have my credentials verified and a pass made.  Unfortunately, when I first arrived, I was also not on the “special” list – or at least we couldn’t find how I was listed.  I ended up with a non-ECOSOC (UN Economic & Social) pass.  In this case, they give you a badge that gets you into the conference, but you cannot participate on the floor in the review room (the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations room).  So, on Thursday, I was able to check out the review of Bulgaria, but I had to enter building E40, go up one floor, and enter through a back way that led me to the gallery.  From the gallery, you can watch from all around the room through glass windows, on a few rows of seats in each sections, and with the neat little ear pieces that are seen throughout all of the UN rooms.

Once I had confirmed my association with the US Human Rights Network, I was invited on Friday to return to the desk behind the security gates to have an official badge printed.  This badge either lasts as long as the conference (mine goes to May 31, 2015), or they’re annual, depending on your association with the process.  Some US Human Rights Network invitees had the annual pass, but they still had to enter in the same gates that I used.  This pass was the key to entering through security in the review room and actually sitting behind the delegates during the review of countries.  I needed this to be in the US Review.

As for events, since I was participating for United States NGO/human rights rallying in the civil society, I attended a couple side sessions, the US Review, press conferences, the Civil Society Consultation, and other events that our network arranged, such as a presentation at the Graduate Institute a few blocks down from the UN which was directed towards human rights college students there.

In my next post, I will describe my involvement in the Civil Society Consultation.  But first, the main attraction…

United States 2nd Universal Periodic Review

The United States has only had one previous UPR, in 2010.  This was a historical UPR to attend, because never had the United States had a follow-up to another review.  It would be the first time that state members could accuse the United States of not having followed through on commitments since their 1st UPR.  The event was scheduled for 9am to noon this morning, keeping in line with a quick but efficient UPR process.  The UN doors, we were told, opened at 8am – but someone called in to find they actually opened at 7:30am.  I got to the UN at about 7:15am and was first in line along with a couple other of women from our US Human Rights Network.  Fortunately, we were all early enough that we got seats on the floor for the UPR.

Yes, it really was that crowded.  As I learned this week, our country is not exactly that “land of the free” that we often sing (and brag) about.  I already knew this from the work I have been doing, but I never realized how much the other countries know that and very much want to give the United States an opinion on what it’s doing improperly.  This is evident just by the participation of the member states: When I attended the Bulgaria review, the troika was present as well as a handful of countries who had recommendations to give.  When we got to the UPR for the US, I was told there were approximately 122 member states who were vying for a chance to give the US an earful.  Because of the incredible demand for the floor with such a short process to begin with, the speaking times per state member, which were already no more than 2 minutes apiece, were universally cut down to a mere 65 seconds to deliver 1) a welcome, 2) an optional appraisal for the work done and continued participation, 3) a list of human rights concerns noted in the country that the member state finds particular offensive, 4) a series of recommendations and urges the member state has for the United States to complete before its 3rd UPR.

And now for a review of what was happening – here is a list of the countries who had time slots to speak, in the order of delivery:

Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Korea, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Rwanda, Senegal, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad & Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Uruguay, Brazil, Viet Nam, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Botswana, Venezuela, Bulgaria, Burkina-Faso, Cape Verde, Canada, Chad, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cote D’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Korea, Dem. Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Vatican, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Bolivia, Maldives, and Uzbekistan.

There were various themes, depending on the country presenting.  This is key to our strategizing as NGOs.  You may wonder, as did one individual at one of our press conferences earlier, why NGOs are coming to Geneva and our answer is this: Because we need to make changes, and we have to rally the pressure from other countries who believe in the changes we are asking for because they are the ones capable of making recommendations on behalf of our causes.  We see this as an effective strategy to pressure our own government into changes things demanded by The People to be addressed.

As I said, there were various themes: the need to eliminate the death penalty, to close Guantanamo, to commit to measures against pollution/reduce admissions for climate change, to respect privacy of citizens and those abroad (including digital communication), create equality for women and minorities, etc.  Lots of talk was done in regards to children rights, women rights, minority rights, police brutality, racial profiling, discrimination, labor rights especially concerning those in agriculture and those who are immigrants, protection of families like immigrant families, the need for abortion availability and assistance for rape victims and similar, etc., etc., etc.  About 1/5 of the member states directly voiced concerns for the US’s inability to adapt the UNDRIP (Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), and many questions on the treaty violations, especially by China.  Pakistan, of all places, acknowledged the rights of Hawai’i and Alaska in the indigenous concerns realm.

Here are 21 of the countries from my notes who made very clear and obvious statements about indigenous concerns during their 65 seconds to review the US:

Nicaragua, Peru, Moldova, Sierra Leone, Spain, Sudan, Macedonia, Albania, Australia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cape Verde, China, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Finland, Guatemala, India Iraq, Uzbekistan.

I’m not surprised by the Central and South American countries who had statements regarding this – as they are all part of this indigenous American system.  They also all had immigration and migrant worker concerns.  As for some European countries, they often face scrutiny on their treatment of the Romani peoples, as I heard in the review on Bulgaria.  The northern most countries of Europe also have an indigenous history.  The subcontinent of India and African countries, I suppose even the Middle East, all have very diverse indigenous communities that we often don’t think about.  Even China is faced with a plethora of dialects and diversity.  Australia, of course, has its share of indigenous issues.  However, New Zealand seemed reserved in attacking the US from this standpoint (perhaps because the Australian continent is struggling to address indigenous issues properly themselves).  Interestingly enough, Canada had no input on the indigenous situation (probably because they are almost identically as guilty).

Basically, I noticed two problems: 1) indigenous issues (which I was there for) were mentioned, but the US completely neglected answering them properly – if at all; and 2) there are so many things in the US that are not up to international standard.  In particular, this involves issues on healthcare, eliminating the death penalty, racial discrimination, etc…

The US also didn’t seem to make too much progress since their first review.  That was duly noted by several countries.

Hopefully this has been informative, and, with that, I will now move on to my next post regarding the Civil Society Consultation, key to getting our individual voices out to the US delegates during the conference.

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