Fear Not the Universal Periodic Review

Ever since the United States submitted its first Universal Periodic Review report to the UN Human Rights Council a meme has been percolating, mostly on the right, that the Obama administration is trying to use the UN to undermine Arizona’s controversial law that allows it to detain suspected illegal immigrants.  We can thank Arizona governor Jan Brewer for this–she sent an angry letter to Secretary Clinton, indignant that the United States would bring this up at the UN. A number of websites sites and commentators picked up on the idea that the Obama administration was looking to the UN for redress. 

The thing is, this is completely bunk. First, actual UPR does not take a position on the Arizona law. It just presents, as fact, that a controversy over it exists. Second, as Colum Lynch points out, administrations of both political stripes routinely submit their human rights record to UN bodies for review.   

Finally, amid all this fricas, it is useful to keep in mind that the Universal Periodic Review is a mechanism that can lead to tangible improvements in human rights around the world. As I wrote back in February, when Iran’s UPR was up for debate at the Council: 

The ultimate measure of the effectiveness of the Universal Periodic Review is the extent to which it can inspire a country to alter its internal human rights practices. With countries that are generally rejectionist of this sort of external interference (say, Iran and North Korea) there is an obvious limit to what the council can practically accomplish. On the other hand, countries that have troubling human rights records, but are not completely rejectionist, have been inspired to improve their human rights records based on the recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review. For example, Human Rights Watch notes that following Saudi Arabia’s first review last year, the Saudi government pledged a number of reforms on women’s rights, ending the juvenile death penalty, and expanding its labor laws to include protection for domestic workers.

For the United States to be taken credibly when it criticizes other country’s record, it has to occasionally let the spotlight shine on itself.  There is nothing wrong or out of the ordinary with that.