By Sarah Joseph
On November 5 in Geneva, it was the US’s turn to have its human rights record scrutinised as part of the Human Rights Council’s process of Universal Periodic Review. The summary of that document is not yet available, but should be online in the next few days via http://www.upr-info.org/-United-States-.html. Initial reaction from the US, including familiar protagonists like Fox News, indicates outrage that the US was taken to task by notorious human rights abusers, like China, Cuba, Iran, Libya and Russia.
This reporting neglects to mention that many Western States also had issues with the US’s human rights record. Or the fact that the US has one of the worst records in the world for ratifying human rights treaties. And there is an assumption that the US’s record is somehow acceptable because other countries are worse. But the US has some serious human rights problems, regarding for example race relations, socio-economic inequalities, rates and conditions of incarceration, the death penalty, and the use of torture and arbitrary detention.
The fact that another country, even one of the US’s critics, might be a worse abuser of human rights, does not excuse breaches by the US of minimum human rights standards. The same is in fact true of any country: human rights is about upholding minimum standards rather than comparing one’s country with others. For example, a single act of torture is not OK simply because another country has committed more!
In short, there has been a whiff of indignation amongst parts of the US media that the US could ever be questioned over its human rights record in the UN. This misunderstands the nature of UPR, whereby every country will be examined, and every country will face criticism. Human rights obligations apply just as much to the US as to Sudan, Iraq or Zimbabwe.
This idea, that human rights is somehow for “them” and not “us” also arises in Australia at times. For example, there was indignation in some quarters recently about the idea that the International Criminal Court might investigate the behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. Shouldn’t our soldiers be subjected to the same international laws as soldiers from other countries? Is it actually impossible for an Australian soldier to commit a war crime?
It will be interesting to see the media’s reaction to our own episode of UPR, scheduled for late January 2011. I suspect some media outlets will concentrate more on the sources of criticism rather than the substance of any criticism, feigning outrage at the idea that Cuba (for example) might have something to say about human rights in Australia. But how can we expect other States to take UPR seriously if we should somehow exempt from the process ourselves?
However, in order for UPR to be a useful process, its results should be communicated to the people of the country concerned. Alas, the reaction of Fox News was perhaps preferable to the reaction of other major media outlets in the US, which was simply to ignore the process altogether.