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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

First U.N. Universal Periodic Review of United States Reveals Human Rights Shortcomings

Lindsay Bigda, November 10, 2010

Last Friday, the United States was subjected to its first review by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The council -- which was re-formed in 2006 -- will review the human rights record of each U.N. member once every four years, offering a means for countries to set goals and receive feedback regarding their human rights records.

Under President Bush, the U.S. abstained from joining the council on the grounds that its design was “flawed” – in particular, that it granted membership to notorious human rights violators such as China, Cuba, and Libya. Ironically, during this same time period, actions taken by the U.S. government in the name of national security (e.g. tolerance of torture, Guantanamo, warrantless government wiretapping) served to significantly undermine the U.S.’s own human rights reputation.

While the move to participate in the council remains controversial, supporters have pointed out that meaningful American participation could help reform the UN system from within, while simultaneously helping to restore the U.S.’s reputation. The Obama administration stated that U.S. inclusion was an attempt to “level the playing field” regarding human rights, and would encourage other countries with more egregious violations to improve their own records.

Other countries took turns speaking out about flaws in the American human rights record in a multitude of areas, ranging from discrimination to national security to the death penalty. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was invited to testify at the meeting, highlighted the problem of the U.S.’s alleged use of torture in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the U.S. State Department’s response to the council, it spoke to this issue, stating:

We defend the legality under the laws of war of using detention to remove adversaries from the conflict, but do not -- and will not -- countenance torture or inhumane treatment of detainees in our custody, wherever they are held.

These comments affirm another departure from policy under President Bush, who was recently quoted in his new memoir as saying “damn right” in response to the CIA’s seeking of approval to use waterboarding to interrogate one of the alleged September 11 plotters.

Perhaps the harshest criticism of the U.S. human rights record from a group within the U.S. itself -- the U.S. Human Rights Network -- which submitted its own 400-page report detailing abuses across several distinct areas. While the report does not directly mention protections for whistleblowers, it does call for government compliance with basic labor rights. From the report:

“It is appropriate for the Council to review labor rights in the United States as the UDHR [Universal Declaration on Human Rights], the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] as well as the ICESCR [International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights] define such rights as basic human rights.”

Whistleblower protections are enclosed within these basic labor rights, as outlined by the U.S. Department of Labor. Still, the U.S. continues to fall short in this area by retaliating against and jailing whistleblowers, failing to provide protections for national security and military whistleblowers, and stalling the reform of inadequate whistleblower laws. While whistleblower protections are not traditionally included within the “human rights” domain, the right to report workplace violations without fear of personal and professional retaliation should, too, be considered a basic right.

Lindsay Bigda is Communications Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.