U.S. Defends Its Human-Rights Record Before UN Council

The U.S. defended its human-rights record at home and abroad, saying the Obama administration has shown its commitment to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center and ending discrimination, though more work must be done.

“We acknowledge imperfection,” Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva today. “We debate it. We welcome and encourage the involvement of our civil society. Though we are proud of our achievements, we are not satisfied with the status quo.”

Posner made the remarks at the start of a three-hour public debate on the U.S.’s human-rights record, the first time the government has subjected itself to the Human Rights Council’s scrutiny. The Bush administration spurned the 47-member council because of the participation of what it deemed oppressive governments and the group’s constant criticism of Israel.

Countries from Iran, Russia, Ecuador, China and Egypt pressed the U.S. to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, as Obama promised when he was elected, and to ratify international human-rights conventions. State Department legal adviser Harold Koh said the U.S. is working hard to close the facility and noted that through “diligent efforts,” the number of detainees has dropped to 174 from 242 when Obama took office.

‘Intensive Efforts’

“President Obama has clearly and unequivocally ordered and remains committed to the closure of Guantanamo as a facility,” Koh said. “He cannot close Guantanamo alone. That also involves our allies, the courts and our Congress. Our intensive efforts to close Guantanamo go on every day.”

Posner said the U.S. is “strongly committed” to adopting certain treaties aimed at fighting discrimination though, unlike other countries, it ensures domestic compliance before seeking ratification. A further constraint is the need for two-thirds of the Senate to back ratification, he said.

The U.S. is “committed to complying with the Constitution and all applicable domestic and international law, and to the idea that there are no ‘law-free zones,’” Posner said.

Ambassadors from Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia accused the U.S. of not cracking down on torture, with Cuba’s Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez saying the Obama administration had failed to “halt war crimes and the killing of civilians.” Koh dismissed their claims, saying: “Let there be no doubt. The U.S. does not torture and it will not torture.”

Death Penalty

Today’s review comes just two weeks after WikiLeaks.org published 400,000 classified U.S. military documents on the Iraq war, renewing concern about allegations of torture and abuse stretching back to the Bush administration.

Delegates from most European Union nations, as well as Australia and Turkey, pressed the U.S. to impose a moratorium on executions and abolish the death penalty. The Swiss and Belgian ambassadors were among those who called for the U.S. to scrap life sentences without the possibility of parole for criminals who were minors when they committed a homicide.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental monitoring group, said non-democracies were allowed to “hijack the session for political propaganda and to drum up anti-American sentiment worldwide” by “stacking” the speakers list with “rogue regimes and other vehement critics.”

The roughly 30-strong U.S. delegation included senior officials from 11 departments and agencies and advisers from civil society groups, said Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer, who is also the American ambassador to the UN council.

Sign-Up List

UN Watch said it discovered that Cuba had circulated an advance sign-up sheet so critics of Washington would dominate the three hours reserved for country statements on the U.S. record. While U.S. allies challenged the list last week, the UN allowed it to apply, the organization said.

Germany’s ambassador took a swipe at those countries saying he hoped they’ll show the same commitment when it comes to ensuring human rights in their own countries as they did today in criticizing the U.S.

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