The UN has delivered a withering verdict on the US’s human rights record, raising concerns on a series of issues including torture, drone strikes, the failure to close Guantánamo Bay and the NSA’s bulk collection of personal data.
The 11-page report was delivered by the UN’s Human Rights Committee in an assessment of how the US is complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR], which has been in force since the mid 1970s.
The committee, a panel of 18 experts from a variety of countries, which is chaired by the British law professor Sir Nigel Rodley, cataloged a string of human rights concerns, notably on the mass surveillance exposed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
It said the collection of the contents of communications from US-based companies under the PRISM program had an adverse impact on the right to privacy. It criticized the United States’ use of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to handle surveillance matters, saying the legal oversight of such programs had largely been kept secret and failed to protect the rights of those affected, “thus not allowing affected persons to know the law with sufficient precision.”
The UN committee urged the US to overhaul its surveillance activities to ensure they complied with US law and conformed to US obligations under the ICCPR.
The committee also criticized the US for failing to prosecute senior members of its armed forces and private contractors involved in torture and targeted killings.
It noted that only a “meager number” of criminal charges had been brought against low-level operatives. It also expressed concern that all investigations into enforced disappearances and torture conducted under the CIA’s rendition program were closed in 2012, and that the details of the program remained secret, creating barriers to accountability and redress for victims.
The US is urged to “ensure that all cases of unlawful killing, torture or other ill-treatment, unlawful detention, or enforced disappearance are effectively, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators, including, in particular, persons in command positions, are prosecuted and sanctioned”.
The committee was also scathing about Washington’s legal justification for targeted killings using drones. The US claims such strikes, which have killed dozens of insurgents and civilians, are an act of self-defense as part of armed conflicts with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The committee criticized such justifications as too broad, and said it was unclear what precautionary measures were taken to avoid civilian deaths.
It urged the US to review the legal justification for drone strikes and said they should be subject to independent oversight.
The committee chides Obama for his failure to fulfill a commitment to close Guantánamo Bay. It notes that many detainees have been held there, and in military prisons in Afghanistan, for more than a decade without charge or trial. It call on the US to speed up the transfer of detainees and ensure that any criminal cases are dealt with by the US justice system rather than a military commission.
Half of the 154 detainees have been approved for release, yet the Obama administration must find resettlement or repatriation options for them. Forty-five captives are held indefinitely, without charges or a trial.
The committee expressed alarm about the continued use of the death penalty in a 16 states. A new report released Thursday by Amnesty International found that in 2013, the US ranked fifth in the world with 39 executions. The report brings up the recent issues with the use of untested drugs during executions and the refusal to disclose information about those drugs — a practice that’s increasingly been in contention.
The report also condemned the “still high number” number of fatal shootings by certain police forces, notably in Chicago, and the high proportion of black people in the country’s jails.
The U.N. body calls on the U.S. to retroactively implement the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act and close a loophole that allows thousands of nonviolent offenders to languish in federal prisons as a result of draconian drug laws. The report also demands measures to end to racial profiling and praises steps to end New York City’s stop-and-frisk program.
The committee lays out corrective steps for the US to take in response to all of its concerns — generally, ending the practice, better protecting rights, or falling in line with its obligations to UN commitments — though there’s little holding the US to following these. The committee has asked the United States to respond with its progress on these matters in its next report, due five years from now on March 28, 2019.