(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that the State Department is soliciting comments from citizens, advocacy groups and other non-governmental organizations on the human rights record of the United States.
“Human rights are universal, but their experience is local. This is why we are committed to holding everyone to the same standard, including ourselves,” Clinton told a press briefing at the State Department, where she unveiled the “2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.”
Clinton said the U.S. is now gathering facts on its own record because – as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council – it is participating in the UNHRC’s “universal periodic review” process.
The Obama administration’s decision to join the Human Rights Council was controversial. The Geneva-based, 47-member HRC faces numerous criticisms, chief among them the presence of countries with poor rights records. Iran is currently running for a seat on the council.
“In the fall, we will present a report (to the UNHRC) based on the input of citizens and NGOs, gathered online and in face-to-face meetings across the country attended by senior government officials,” Clinton said on Thursday.
“Assessing opportunities for progress and soliciting citizen engagement is one way that we demonstrate our commitment in word and deed to the basic principles that guide us toward a more perfect union and a more peaceful world,” she added.
Following Clinton’s remarks, Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, took questions from reporters. One asked how the U.S. would defend itself against critics who say the U.S. “does not have clean hands, particularly when it comes to the criminal justice system.”
“I doubt that other governments are going to say things that people in this society don’t say every day,” Posner said. He reiterated Clinton’s commitment to preparing the first-ever report on the U.S. human rights record for review by the HCR.
Posner said the State Department is holding a series of meetings around the country to gather information it will use for the 20-page report it plans to submit to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council in November.
“We’re not doing it in a formulaic way,” Posner said. “We’re doing these sessions, these public sessions, we’re inviting in advocacy groups from around the country – we had one in New Orleans, we had one in New York, we had one here is Washington.
“We’re going to spread out to the border areas,” Posner said. “We’re going to go to Detroit. We’re going to talk to people in this society who are on the front line of criticizing, whether it’s the criminal justice system, immigration policies or national security policies -- no holds barred,” he said.
“We’re going to hear them,” Posner said. “We’re going to incorporate their thoughts and suggestions into a report to the U.N. And then we’re going to show up at the end of the year and present that report and get comments from other countries.”
But Austin Ruse, president of a United Nations watchdog organization, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said the State Department’s process for preparing its report to the UNHRC may not be objective.
“It will give pretty left-wing groups a forum for criticizing the U.S.,” Ruse told CNSNews.com. That internal criticism will then end up at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“This is a two-step process,” Ruse said. “The second step is another opportunity for the U.S. to come under fire, this time by the United Nations.”
According to the United Nation’s Web site, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process was set up to review member nations every four years. It is a three step process – reviewing the human rights “situation” of member nations, asking for “voluntary pledges” to follow recommendations made by the Human Rights Council, and following up to see if those recommendations have been followed.
The U.S. State Department Web site says the collection of complaints about human rights abuses in the United States is part of its goal of “transparency” in the UPR process.
“In the pursuit of a transparent and effective UPR process, the Department of State is encouraging the American public, including non-governmental organizations and civil society more broadly to provide input regarding human rights in the United States directly to the Department of State,” the Web site says.
Comments will be accepted online through April 30.
Ruse said it remains to be seen if the report provided to the United Nations by the State Department will include the human rights concerns of all Americans.
“I would hope that on their listening tour, the State Department will listen to social conservatives about the rights of the unborn child being violated,” Ruse said. “We shall see if the State Department is interested in the proper understanding of human rights.”
In addition to the United States, 15 countries will undergo UPR by the U.N. Human Rights Council this year: They include Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Lebanon, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Mongolia, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, Andorra, Bulgaria and Croatia.