The United States is submitting its human rights record to the scrutiny of other nations — both allies and adversaries — for the first time, as the Obama administration opens itself up to a committee shunned by his predecessor.
The three-hour UN review Friday will have more than a few uncomfortable moments for the high-level US delegation, which is sure to face questions over the use of torture in the war on terror, the failure to dismantle the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the death penalty, immigration policy, the treatment of racial minorities and questions of religious freedom.
The 30-strong delegation, headed by three top State Department officials and including representatives from many departments, including Justice, Defense and Homeland Security, arrives in Geneva with a 20-page report compiled with the input of civic and social organizations.
For most observers, the high level of US engagement alone is a milestone. The Bush administration shunned the UN Human Rights Council, which runs the so-called Universal Public Reviews, because of the participation of repressive states and its constant criticism of Israel.
Some of the most vocal critics of the review process have come from the US Congress, and a landslide by the frequently UN-skeptical Republicans in Tuesday's election could leave the country even less receptive.
Human rights organizations say the ultimate test will be in the US response to peer recommendations from any of the United Nations 192 members, including possibly Iran, which will be made next week.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU human rights program, said it is important that the United States matches its rhetoric with concrete domestic policies and actions.
"We believe that Obama administration should take specific actions through executive order and legislation that assure domestic human rights commitments, including UPR recommendations, are monitored and enforced within the US," Dakwar said.
Some activists say Washington's report glosses over some of the toughest human rights challenges facing the United States, including the treatment of immigrants, the death penalty and officials responsible for the use of torture as a tool in the war against terror.
"We were dissatisfied because we concluded half of the report was basically fluff. It had very little substance," said Ajamu Baraka, director of the US Human Rights Network, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that prepared its own human rights reports in parallel. "It devoted too much space to a rendering of US history as it relates to human rights that we thought was primarily myth."
Beyond front-page issues like torture and immigration, Baraka also wants to see the United States make more progress in what are seen as softer economic, social and cultural human rights, areas that came into sharp focus by the economic collapse that has penalized mostly less powerful members of society.
The 47-member council replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission in 2006, and the Obama administration joined last year — although as a UN member would have been required to participate in the peer review in any case. The council has no enforcement powers, but is supposed to act as the world's moral conscience on human rights.
The best tool it has for that is the UPR process, under which it reviews all of the 192 UN members' human rights records every four years. It is currently about two-thirds into the first cycle, which will be completed at the end of 2011.
The review will also be a test for the council itself, as governments assess next year whether the young body is living up to its stated purpose to be the world's pre-eminent forum for discussing human rights.
Critics of the council have argued that too often repressive states such as Cuba and Pakistan have used the review process to lavish praise on their allies, a practice the US recently suggested should be banned in future meetings.
The UPR process has its detractors across the Atlantic who don't want to see the United States submit to the scrutiny of countries with lesser human rights records.
Indeed, it is highly likely that countries like Iran — whose human rights record is often under fire from Washington — will jockey to be the first to question the United States. But U.S. officials say such scrutiny does not weaken the process.
"We will get some interesting questions. We will get some outrageous
questions. The United State is used to public scrutiny," Eileen
Chamberlain Donahoe, US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council told a
Donahoe said the United States needs to be willing to hear criticism also from its critics in order to be good role model.
"We genuinely believe that it is through that kind of open process, that
the truth about our human rights record will shine through, number one,
and the areas where we need to improve will benefit from the real and
serious input that we get," she said.
Donahoe said she hoped that Tuesday's elections, which gave control of
the House to the Republicans, who are generally more wary of the UN,
would have little bearing on the U.S. engagement with the global body
over the longer term.
"I feel fairly confident we are starting to change the understanding at
home about the value of the opportunity that we have here, that
engagement has its benefits," Donahoe said.