Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer
Thank you, Mr. President.
The United States is honored to present our first Universal Periodic Review report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is my pleasure to introduce our delegation, which is comprised of senior officials from eleven U.S. departments and agencies, a representative of our local authorities, and two advisers from civil society groups. Their participation reflects the depth of our commitment to human rights at home, which spans the federal government as well as state, local, and tribal governments across our country, and which is complemented by the deep commitment from President Obama and Secretary Clinton to multilateral engagement, human rights, and the rule of law.
As President Obama has said, our country’s “Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in [our] country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.” We take our place in the UPR process with pride in our accomplishments, honesty in facing continued challenges, and a commitment to using the international system to elevate and advance the protection of human rights at home and abroad.
The Universal Periodic Review is comprised of three important ideas. The first, Universality, reflects the norm of full participation at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: in short, these rights must be for all. The UPR has examined countries that exemplify human rights leadership; those that uphold human rights in the face of devastating obstacles; and those that defy their international obligations and silence and punish any who would expose their abuses.
Equally important is the Review’s Periodic character, premised on the idea that advancement and enforcement of human rights must be pursued persistently over time, with accountability, follow through, continuing effort, and constant improvement. For the United States, our early years witnessed profound gaps between our ideals and practice, including slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, and limited franchise. Yet our own history has been one of progress, built on a strong foundation of fundamental freedoms of speech, association, and religion, this is the foundation for building a “more perfect Union.”
The third UPR premise is Review, the idea that governments’ records should be scrutinized, discussed, and debated by other governments, civil society, human rights defenders, a free press, and their own citizenry. In America, such dialogue is heard every day. Each morning we awake to a cacophony of opinions, from editorial boards, columnists, politicians, bloggers, and other commentators. Some are respectful and constructive; some less so. Some carry moral authority; some do not. But we protect it all. We bring that willingness to listen and engage to today’s discussion.
For the United States, the UPR is a conversation in Geneva, but also one at home with our own people, to whom we are ultimately accountable. We have made the participation of citizens and civil society a centerpiece of our UPR process. We held eleven consultations hosted by nongovernmental organizations across the United States – in New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, El Paso, the Navajo Nation reservation, and elsewhere. We heard from men and women of all races, ethnicities, religions, ages, and affiliations. These rich exchanges have informed our UPR report, shaped our thinking, and served as a potent impetus for progress. This morning’s presentation only continues a conversation that will resume this afternoon at a Town Hall meeting, here in Geneva and in Washington, with more than 100 civil society organizations. We commend to all governments a similar depth of engagement with civil society in the UPR process, to expand citizens’ voices in advancing human rights, here in Geneva and around the world. This morning’s presentation therefore is not the end, but only a milestone in our long-term engagement to promote our human rights aspirations. We have approached this process with a seriousness of purpose and a commitment to engage genuinely with comments and questions raised in good faith. While we cannot respond to every idea raised in hundreds of conversations or debated in the blogosphere, we welcome the opportunity today to talk with thoughtful interlocutors in a constructive dialogue.
I would now like to turn to Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner to introduce our interactive dialogue.
Assistant Secretary Michael Posner
Thank you, very much, Assistant Secretary Brimmer. It is an honor to be here today. Last fall, I became Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor after working for 30 years with Human Rights First, a non-governmental advocacy organization.
The United States is a country founded on the moral truths reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our Constitution has provided the legal framework and foundation for our progress toward a more perfect union over the last 221 years. Our Declaration of Independence reaffirmed the “inalienable rights” of all people. In the wake of our Civil War, its glaring original flaw of tolerating slavery was removed. Decades later, in1920, it was amended to provide women the right to vote. And in 1924, Federal law granted full citizenship for Native Americans.
Throughout our history as a nation, the Constitution has been our firm foundation: the sacred principles of equality and liberty for all persons have guided us and have been the measure of our earthly progress, beckoning us ever-closer to an ideal. And although our progress has not been linear, it has been undeniable. In the story of the United States, the arc of history has bent toward justice.
The story of our nation has been a struggle for a more perfect union. Our system of government reflects an apparent paradox: that the most perfect system of government is one that assumes its own imperfection. For any government or system of laws that pretends to be perfect cannot be so; it is only by admitting the possibility of imperfection that the creation of mechanisms for improvement can be justified, and that progress toward a more perfect union can occur. Our laws have never fully reflected the principles that underlie our Constitution: changes in the world around us and in our understanding of it always reveal new opportunities to improve. We acknowledge imperfection; we discuss and debate it; we welcome and encourage the involvement of our civil society; and we work through democratic legislatures and independent courts to remedy it – the ability to do this has been and continues to be a source of strength.
Our UPR report provides an account of laws created, and of measures established to ensure their fair implementation, in order to protect the rights of individuals in the United States. We respect freedom; we challenge obstacles to freedom, and we seek to ensure the pathways to freedom. The freedoms of speech and assembly, and of thought, conscience and religion remain vigorously protected. We have expansive legal protections against unfair discrimination and in the last half century have made significant progress in ensuring that the law protects equal opportunity for all Americans in areas such as education, employment, health, housing, and voting. And we have made changes in the laws and policies that govern our criminal justice system to see that it accords all people with due process of law and equal protection under the law.
In addition to protections of individuals’ fundamental freedoms and rights against discrimination and abuse, other laws and programs have helped lay the foundation for the enjoyment of rights. Recent legislation will improve access to quality healthcare, particularly for the vulnerable. And investments currently underway in our education system and our economy are paving the way for stronger schools that can provide a high quality education to all students and a strong economy that is ready to harness the skills students learn in school.
As our report acknowledges, though we are proud of our achievements, we are not satisfied with the status quo. We will continue to work to ensure that our laws are fair and justly implemented, and to foster a society in which people are empowered to enjoy their rights.
From their first moments in office, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have made their own deep commitments to the rule of law, to multilateral engagement, and to bringing international human rights home. As you know, along with many allies, the United States is currently in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and with Al Qaeda and associated forces, and we have reported on the human rights obligations of the United States in the context of our international actions. The United States 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.” On his second day in office, President Obama signed three Executive Orders—on detention, interrogation, and transfer policies—and these reflect our broader commitment to ensuring security consistent with our Constitution and with the international rule of law. We conduct our armed conflicts pursuant to, and limited by, the laws of war as they apply to this 21st century situation. Although the realities of the world we live in mean that the security of our people, and that of others around the world, will sometimes demand and justify the use of force, we recognize that, as the theologian Paul Ramsey put it, “that which justifies, also limits.”
A few weeks ago, the United States and the world lost a giant in the field of human rights. Louis Henkin, born in present-day Belarus, came to our country as an immigrant and went on to an historic legal and academic career as a gentle, wise, steadfast intellectual beacon for human rights. In 1990, Professor Henkin wrote that: “[T]here is now a working consensus that every man and woman, between birth and death, counts, and has a claim to an irreducible core of integrity and dignity. In that consensus, in the world we have and are shaping, the idea of human rights is the essential idea.” The United States is committed to human rights at home and abroad. We are committed to deepening the consensus that every man and woman, every girl and boy, counts, and to promoting its promise by doing our part to help shape a world that better reflects the essential idea of human rights.
We look forward to a productive and constructive conversation.