State Department defends silence during UN rights reviews

State Department defends silence during UN rights reviews

[JURIST] US State Department [official website] spokesperson Robert Wood on Tuesday defended the silence of the US delegates [press conference transcript] during the UN Human Rights Council [official website] Universal Periodic Review (UPR) [materials] of potential rights abuses, saying that the US is not actively participating because the administration of President Barack Obama [official website] is still deciding how it wants to interact with the Council. Wood said that the US had representatives attending and monitoring the UPR sessions, and that its abstention from the reviews did not mean that human rights were not a priority for the administration. He also said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [official website] intends to address the rights records of China and Indonesia in an upcoming trip to Asia:

[F]or one, we're reviewing our policy and strategy with regard to the Human Rights Council. Certainly, I can understand many people want to see us enunciate our policies very early on. You know, it does take time. We want to make sure that we’ve done a thorough review and that we not rush this. We want to get it right. Let me just be very clear: With this President and this Secretary, human rights is a very, very high priority. We’re very concerned – we’ve been very concerned about the operation of the Human Rights Council, and we want to take a look and see how we may engage with the Human Rights Council. But this is all part of the review, and as soon as we have completed that review, we will certainly make clear what our policies are. …

[O]n this trip, human rights is going to be an important issue. The Secretary will raise the issue, when appropriate, where she thinks she can have the most effect, and you can count on that. I don’t think anybody is going to be able to tell you exactly, well, in this particular meeting, you know, the Secretary is going to raise issue X or Y. She is going to do what she thinks is best in terms of trying to communicate our goals and objectives on the human rights front, and you can rest assured that this is an issue that she cares deeply about and that will come up on this – during this visit. And she will raise it, as I said, in an appropriate time.

Wood's statements come after the administration has received criticism from both human rights groups and US politicians for not taking part [press release] in the UPR sessions. In his remarks on the decision [press release], US Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) criticized the administration for failing to use the UPR process to address abuses it has long condemned:

The United Nations Human Rights Council is now conducting reviews of the human rights records of 16 countries-among which are China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

While the United States is not a member of the Human Rights Council, every member of the U.N. has an opportunity to pose questions and raise concerns about the human rights record of the country being reviewed.

I was shocked and disappointed to learn that for the last week, the U.S. delegation has been silent. How can America be say nothing about four of the worst offenders of human rights and religious freedom in the world? …

This administration made a pledge to place human rights at the top of its agenda. The administration is off to the wrong start on making human rights a priority.

China, the subject of one of the reviews, defended itself in a report [text, PDF; JURIST report] to the UPR earlier this month, saying that it was taking steps to improve its legal system [press release], promote democracy, and encourage non-governmental organizations (NGOs).