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Live from Geneva! It’s Crunch Time for the UN’s Examination of the U.S. Human Rights Record

March 10, 2014

The Advocates for Human Rights has a booth at the Minnesota State Fair every year. We have a wheel that fairgoers spin to take a shot at answering a question on a human rights topic. Last year, one question was a real stumper: “When will the United Nations next review the human rights record of the United States?” “Never” was the common response. The correct answer? Now. This week, a 32-person delegation of U.S. officials will appear before the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss human rights here at home.

I’m in Geneva this week as part of a delegation coordinated by the U.S. Human Rights Network, a network of organizations and individuals working to build and strengthen a people-centered human rights movement in the United States. After more than a year of preparation over the phone, email, and even in webinars, we all got together Sunday to finally meet face to face. And wow what a crowd! More than 60 of us crammed into a hotel conference room (and the adjoining hallway) for a 3-hour meeting to finalize our preparations. The room was full of energy and excitement!

It’s crunch time for our network. We spent the evening polishing 2-minute working group statements, which we will deliver in a formal briefing to the Human Rights Committee Monday around noon. And we plotted out our additional informal briefings with the committee and side events targeting a broader audience here in Geneva. We have an action plan for blogging, live-tweeting, and doing other social media outreach, too. This post is just one of the first in a series that network members will be posting this week.

With the help of some teachers and their students, I’ll field some questions students have about how the international human rights system works. Here are the questions they’ve sent me, and my answers.

Switzerland? Isn’t the UN in New York?

The United Nations’ headquarters is in New York City. That’s where the Security Council and General Assembly meet. But the UN has three regional offices: Vienna, Austria; Geneva, Switzerland; and Nairobi, Kenya. The Geneva office is the largest of the three, and it hosts most of the UN’s human rights work.

Does the United States have to do what the UN says?

Kind of. The UN’s human rights bodies don’t have a police force to send to the United States to enforce human rights laws. Instead, these UN bodies ask our government questions and then publish “Concluding Observations.” It’s a politely worded report that describes “Positive aspects” and then presents “Principal subjects of concern and recommendations.” For example, one of these bodies in 2006 recommended that the United States “ensure the right of residents of the District of Columbia to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives, in particular with regard to the House of Representatives.”

Why do these UN bodies get to tell the United States what to do?

Because the United States agreed to let them! Most international human rights law is based on treaties, which are kind of like contracts. If a government signs and ratifies a treaty, it agrees to follow the treaty. It’s just like if you sign a lease, you agree to pay your rent on time and follow the other terms of your lease. And human rights treaties typically say that any country that ratifies the treaty has to report to the UN from time to time to show that the country is following the treaty. The UN calls a country that has ratified a treaty a “State party” to the treaty.

What exactly are these “UN bodies”?

There is a committee for each human rights treaty. For example, the UN’s Committee Against Torture oversees the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The UN’s Human Rights Committee is responsible for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Each committee is made up of independent experts from around the world.

How does it all work?

Every 4-5 years, each State party has to file a written report with the relevant committee. The report is supposed to show how the State party is following the treaty. It’s kind of like a “self-evaluation.” As you might expect, these self-evaluations sometimes ignore or gloss over human rights problems. So the committee identifies some issues and questions it is concerned about, and the State party then files written responses to those issues and questions. Then, a delegation from the State party’s government travels to Geneva to go head-to-head with the committee. The committee experts ask questions for six hours, or even longer. And then a few weeks later, the committee issues “Concluding Observations.” The State party is then supposed to implement the committee’s recommendations, and report back again in 4-5 years on how things are going.

Do State parties actually do what the Committee says?

Sometimes. The committees really have to rely on the power of persuasion. In some cases, the State party just says it can’t do what the committee recommends. For example, even if the U.S. Federal Government wanted to follow that 2006 recommendation and give residents of the District of Columbia a voting member of the House of Representatives, it’s not clear that it could do so under Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. In other cases, a State party may disagree with the Committee’s interpretation of the treaty’s obligations–just like you might disagree with your landlord about some language in your lease. But in many cases, the State party makes a genuine effort to implement the committee’s recommendations.

Can regular people participate, or is it just between the government and the UN?

There are many ways that ordinary people can get involved in human rights at the UN. In fact, “civil society” plays a critical role. If a State party files a sugar-coated report, civil society groups can flag important issues for the committee. Civil society groups can also write their own independent reports to share their own views and experiences about the human rights situation on the ground. And civil society groups meet with committee members before they meet with the government delegation in Geneva. The Advocates for Human Rights has “special consultative status” with the United Nations, which means that staff members like me can get UN grounds passes to attend sessions in person.

Speaking of Geneva, what’s going on there this week?

This is the time human rights nerds like me have been waiting for!

  • First up, on Monday civil society organizations and leaders of tribal governments have a “formal briefing” at the Palais Wilson with all of the members of the Human Rights Committee. We’ll talk with them about our concerns, they’ll share what they’re most interested in and any questions they have. The purpose of this meeting is to make sure the Committee experts are ready to grill the U.S. Government delegation with six hours of tough questions later this week.
  • Next, on Tuesday morning we’ll have a longer informal briefing with the committee where tribal leaders can have more opportunity to dialogue with the Committee. We’ll also give the Committee answers to any questions they raised on Monday, and some people who have been personally affected by human rights violations will be there to testify.
  • On Wednesday afternoon, we’re all invited to the U.S. Embassy to the United Nations in Geneva for a “civil society consultation.” 
  • On Thursday, the action moves up the road to the Palais des Nations. The Committee has a quick “informal briefing” with civil society groups, and then from 3-6 pm, it starts asking the U.S. Government Delegation questions. You can watch a live webcast of the questioning, or check out the video archives later.
  • On Friday, from 10 am-1 pm, the questioning continues. If the Committee doesn’t have time to cover everything it wants to discuss, it may take a break and then ask the United States to come back for a few more hours after lunch.
  • Then we all go home and wait for about two weeks for the Committee to publish its Concluding Observations.

Why are you there?

The Advocates is part of civil society, and we submitted three independent reports to the Human Rights Committee. The first is about the detention of non-citizens, the second is about the death penalty, and the third is about domestic violence and “Stand Your Ground” laws. So I’m in Geneva to meet with the Committee and raise awareness about the issues we covered in our reports. I’ll answer any questions Committee members have, and I’ll encourage the U.S. Government delegation to accept and implement any recommendations the Committee makes that relate to our reports.

Could you recommend reading materials, videos, or other learning tools that will expose my students to human rights issues all over the world?

Sure! First, be sure to take a look at all of The Advocates’ great human rights education resources for teachers and students. There are some good videos on the UN Human Rights Youtube channel, including, relevant to my time in Geneva, What is a Human Rights Treaty Body? and What is a Human Right? The UN also maintains information on a long list of human rights issues. The UN also offers live and archived webcasts of its proceedings, including sessions of treaty bodies like the Human Rights Committee. The UN also publishes training and education materials.

How can we learn more?

I’ll be in Geneva all week, and members of the U.S. Human Rights network will be live-tweeting and updating with new blog posts as soon as we can. If you have questions or want us to talk about certain things, please send me an email at We hope to hear from you!

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

This post is one of the first in a series of posts by U.S. civil society groups in Geneva this week for the UN Human Rights Committee's review of the United States.

Lives on the Line: Will Supreme Court Hold U.S. Accountable for Death Penalty? (The Advocates' blog)

Access to Justice and the Bringing Human Rights Back Home Challenge (Human Rights At Home blog)

Decades Later, No Justice for Kent State Killings (ACLU)

U.S. Human Rights Record Undergoes International Scrutiny (ACLU)