GENEVA—The United States on Friday disavowed torture and pledged to treat terror suspects humanely, but set aside calls to drop the death penalty, as the United Nations carried out its first review of Washington’s human rights record.
As part a groundbreaking commitment to improvement under the Obama administration, the U.S. joined the 47-nation Human Rights Council in 2009. And in doing so, submitted to more international scrutiny.
State Department legal adviser Harold Koh outlined nine key improvement areas Friday, encompassing about 174 of the 228 recommendations the community had urged on Washington in an initial report last November. Nations are held accountable for what they agree to improve.
He said the U.S. would agree to improvements in areas ranging from civil rights to national security to immigration, including intolerance of torture and the humane treatment of suspects at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
But in some areas the U.S. stance was unchanged, particularly on the death penalty, which had led to a chorus of objections from many European nations.
Critics say the law is inhumane and unfairly applied. But Koh said capital punishment is permitted under international law.
“To those who desire as a matter of policy to end capital punishment in the United States—and I count myself among those—I note the decision made by the government of Illinois on March 9 to abolish that state’s death penalty,” Koh told the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council.
Cuba, Iran and Venezuela complained the U.S. was brushing too many recommendations aside, while China and Russia said the U.S. was not going far enough on Guantanamo, and called for it to be shut down as President Barack Obama had promised.
Other nations urged the U.S. to reduce overcrowding in prisons, ratify international treaties on the rights of women and children, and take further steps to prevent racial profiling. Koh said Obama also would push to ratify additional measures under the Geneva Conventions and add protections for anyone it detains in an international armed conflict.
Civil society groups have praised the U.S. for involving itself in the review process, which all U.N. member states have to undergo every four years. Japan, France and Cameroon had led the writing of the report on the U.S.
However, Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s human rights program, said one of the biggest U.S. shortcomings is that it has still has not created an independent human rights monitoring commission as has been done in over 100 countries.
“While the Obama administration should be commended for its positive engagement in this process, in order to lead by example, this international engagement must be followed by concrete domestic actions to bring U.S. laws and policies in line with international human rights standards,” he said.