For the first time on Friday, the United States subjected itself to some harsh criticisms from friends and foes alike among the 47 nations sitting on the United Nations Human Rights Council. The U.S. took the criticism in stride with a high-level delegation of around 30 officials led by Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.
Among the chief critics and first in line at the podium to speak out: Cuba, Iran, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela, whose delegates reportedly camped out overnight to secure their spot behind the podium.
Cuban ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez called on the U.S. to end its blockade of the island country, calling it a "crime of genocide." In addition, it condemned the U.S. for "violations against migrants and mentally ill persons” and called on America to “ensure the right to food and health” for all citizens.
Iran's delegation demanded the U.S. "halt serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law including covert external operations by the CIA carried out on pretext of combating terrorism." The Islamic nation -- currently poised to stone a woman for alleged adultery charges -- told the United States it needed to “combat violence against women."
North Korea, a dictatorial nation known to starve its own people, told the U.S. “to address inequalities in housing, employment and education” and “prohibit brutality…by law enforcement officials.” The delegation also noted that it was “concerned by systematic widespread violations committed by the United States at home and abroad.”
Libya accused the U.S. of systematic “racism, racial discrimination and intolerance.”
The criticism didn't only come from America's foes. Countries like the United Kingdom and France condemned the United States for its allowance of capital punishment. Still, Assistant Secretary Brimmer told the council that “it is an honor to be in this chamber.”
Many of the UNHRC's accusations, however, seem to accurately reflect a characterization of the council's activities offered by former American ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton who warned against joining the council. According to Bolton, Friday's self-inflicted scolding from the international community underscored the Obama administration's "naivete" toward international diplomacy.
"For the Obama administration, this is an exercise in self flagellation, which they seem to enjoy," Bolton said. "But it doesn't prompt equivalent candor from the real rights abusers."
The administration has engaged in an intensive effort, including holding town hall meetings with Muslims, Native Americans, African Americans and other minority groups, to assess the extent of domestic rights violations. In August, it gave the U.N. rights council a 22-page report documenting U.S. abuses, including practices by federal and local police and corrections and immigration officials, and defending President Obama's counter-terrorism policies. Friday's meeting provided the first opportunity for states to comment on the report.
"Our progress has not been linear, but in the story of the United States, the arc of history has bent toward justice," said Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. "As our report acknowledges, though we are proud of our achievements, we are not satisfied with the status quo."
That "status quo," according to the Obama administration, has included the United States' "long history of rights abuse."
"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," Brimmer said. "Yet our own history has been one of progress, built on a strong foundation of fundamental freedoms of speech, association and religion, as foundation for building a 'more perfect Union.'"
Nicaragua's Carlos Robelo Raffone also condemned the U.S. for sins of the past, but insisted America has made little progress. "The United States of America, since its very origin, has used force indiscriminately as the central pillar of its policy of conquest and expansionism, causing death and destruction," Raffone told his U.N. colleagues Friday. "We would like to forget the past, but unfortunately the United States of America -- which pretends to be the guardian of human rights in the world, questioning other countries -- has been and continues to be the one which most systematically violates human rights."
But the UNHRC forum was not only an opportunity for America's foreign neighbors to deride the U.S. Some 300 domestic non-govermental organizations (NGOs) also seized on the opportunity to criticize their own government using the international stage.
Antonio Ginatta of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch told the council the U.S. "grossly" violates its citizens' human rights: "U.S. officials were often reduced to restating current practices that grossly violate human rights, like the death penalty, poor prison conditions and sentencing youth offenders to life without parole."
Further, Amnesty International condemned the U.S. for its use of enhanced interrogation techniques. "These recommendations must be at the heart of rebuilding the United States' human rights record," it said in a statement.
Appearing on Russia Today from the conference in Geneva, Chandra Bhatnagar of the American Civil Liberties Union also spoke about America's use of "torture" and insisted those who approve and carry out the intelligence-gathering technique must be prosecuted:
In response to these accusations from Americans and other nations, Harold Koh, a U.S. State Department legal adviser told the U.N. council: "Let there be no doubt, the United States does not torture and it will not torture." And while some countries lambasted the U.S. and the Obama administration for not carrying through on the president's promise to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Koh simply responded that "the president cannot close Guantanamo alone," and any effort to do so would require assistance from Congress, the courts and foreign allies willing to take in released detainees.
Ambassador Bolten isn't alone in criticizing the Obama administration's willingness to expose the country to such criticism, however. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban-American congresswoman likely to become the next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also criticizes the move away from President George W. Bush's precedent of ignoring the UNHRC. "So long as the inmates are allowed to run the asylum, the Human Rights Council will continue to stand in the way of justice, not promote it," she said in a statement Friday. "The U.S. should walk out of this rogues' gallery and seek to build alternative forums that will actually focus on abuses and deny membership to abusers."
In the end it was the German delegation -- not the American envoy -- who most vocally scolded the critics of the U.S. "We have noted with interest that some of states which are on the first places of today's speakers list had spared no effort to be the first to speak on the U.S.," said Germany's delegate, Konrad Scharinger. "We would hope that those states will show the same level of commitment when it comes to improving their human rights record at home."