United States Faces the Human Rights Council Today

The UN Human Rights Council just wrapped up its “Universal Periodic Review” session on the United States.  The UPR, as it is known, is a mechanism in which every UN member states comes under the scrutiny of the Human Rights Council every four years.

In advance of today’s session, the United States released a report of its human rights record and shortcomings.  Guantanamo, the death penalty, Islamaphobia, torture, and other familiar human rights issues were discussed at the session. The Swiss ambassador, for example, called for a moratarium on the death penatly and for improved conditions at immigrant detention centers.

To be sure, some countries with more hostile relations used the opportunity to score some political points. But from the reports that I have read so far, most of the conversation was not anything different from the kind of discussion you might find if Harold Koh were to discuss America’s human rights record at a town hall meeting in, say, Denver.

One of the more interesting aspects of the UPR process is that NGOs and civil society groups are provided the opportunity to weigh in.  To it’s credit, the Obama administration recognized this and included the input of civil society leaders when drafting its report to the Human Rights Council.  It is even holding a town hall with NGOs later today.

The open forum gives groups the opportunity to bring to light human rights issues that do not tend to get alot of attention. For example, Penelope Saunders of the Best Practices Policy Project, a group that advocates for the rights and well being of sex workers, sent me this note about a report that her group submitted to the Human Rights Council today.

On Friday it is the United States turn to participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) — the new-ish human rights review process for UN member nations. A report to the UN Human Rights Council from advocates and organizations working with sex workers in the US highlights the serious human rights violations experienced by people in the sex trade in that country. Many of these abuses occur as a direct result of the criminalization of different forms of sex work, such as street-based prostitution and indoor forms of sexual exchange. Sex workers, or people profiled by the police as such, are sexually and physically assaulted by police officers, sentenced to prison time on the first offence, refused denied adequate health care, and harm reduction programs serving sex workers are denied federal funding.

Since 2003 the United States has exported its anti-sex work policies through restrictions on foreign aid that require organizations seeking anti-trafficking and HIV/AIDS funding to agree to a policy condemning sex work. This restriction, known as the “anti-prostitution pledge”, has lead to the defunding of some highly effective programming internationally. One example was sex worker member-organization Durjoy Nari Shangho in Banglandesh. According to a 2008 Open Society Institute report, “In 2005, shortly after two of the organization’s international funders signed the anti-prostitution pledge required of groups wishing to receive HIV-related grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), much of Durjoy’s funding ended abruptly. As a result, Durjoy had to close 17 of its 20 drop-in centers.” The UPR report from U.S. civil society organizations working with and representing sex workers calls for the repeal of the anti-prostitution pledge. This misguided policy endangers sex workers’ health and rights in the name of protecting people from human trafficking. It is time for the US to recognize that supporting sex workers’ human rights — not violating them — is a much more effective approach.

All in all, the willingness of the world’s superpower to open itself up to criticisms from foreign allies, foreign adversaries, and NGOs, bodes well for the Human Right’s Council.   The Council holds great potential to advance human rights globally. It’s success, though, depends on the perception that human rights really are a universal value.