For the first time, the US government is participating in a process that allows the United Nations to review the human rights records of all member states. The first step of that process began today at Xavier University when representatives from the Obama Administration came to listen to, and answer questions from, people from the Gulf Coast.
The purpose of these consultations by government officials is to assist the government in developing its US Human Rights Report. Similar consultations will take place around the country for the next few months in order to prepare for the United Nations' first Universal Periodic Review in November of 2010. The UN Human Rights Council is expected to review the US report in December and issue a report in early 2011.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process was introduced with the formation of the reformed UN Human Rights Council in 2006. Each UN member state’s human rights record will be reviewed by three of their peers who will review all human rights obligations and commitments to which the member state is a party, as well as any voluntary pledges and commitments made by that country. Last year, the US formally joined the Human Rights Council and pledged to respect human rights at home and abroad.
According to Kali Akuno of the US Human Rights Network, "The UPR process offers an important opportunity to address how the United States is meeting its human rights obligations under the UN charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to pressure the government to live up to its obligations, and to provide concrete and constructive recommendations about steps the US can take to ensure the protection and promotion of rights and dignity for all."
In other words, this is an important opportunity to hold the US government to international human rights standards. International agreements that guarantee rights to housing and protect against racial discrimination often offer more protection than US laws. As Malcolm X observed, "As long as you’re fighting on the level of civil rights, you’re under Uncle Sam’s jurisdiction. You’re going to his court expecting him to correct the problem. He created the problem. He’s the criminal. You don’t take your case to the criminal; you take your criminal to court.”
Addressing the Obama Administration officials at Xavier today, Norris Henderson of Voice Of The Ex-offender (VOTE) laid out the problems in New Orleans' criminal justice system, asking why a city of this size is planning to build a jail with the capacity to hold 8,000 prisoners. "We are the first to tell other countries what to do," Henderson said. "But, like Michael Jackson, we need to look at the Man in the Mirror."
Today's consultation is another step forward in holding the US government accountable. But there is still a long way to go. "We need to do something dramatic," said Henderson, after describing some of the human rights abuses he's seen and struggled to fight. "We need to shake this system to it's core."