United States' human rights record scrutinised at UN session

Protestors and police face each other during a rally for George Floyd in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Many member states cited the death of Mr Floyd as highlighting issues of systematic racism and policy brutality in the US. (KEYSTONE / Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Star Tribune via AP)

The United States was criticised for racial discrimination, police brutality and imposing sanctions on the International Criminal Court at a United Nations session this week.

The United States' human rights record was put under the international spotlight on Monday during a review at the United Nations in Geneva, with member states citing the use of capital punishment, police violence against African Americans, reproductive health rights and the separation of migrant families as concerns.

Taking place during the 36th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) of 14 member countries including Belarus, Libya and Honduras, delegates from major powers voiced their concerns and made recommendations at the half-day meeting.

Monday marked the third UPR of the US, which withdrew from the UNHRC in June 2018 but is still subject to review as a member country. In his opening address, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Destro asserted: “Our presence in this process demonstrates our nation's commitment to human rights.”

Many countries raised the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in May, and the ensuing protests across the US as highlighting issues of “excessive use of force by police”, “systemic racism ”and “racial profiling”.

Members of the Trump administration attended the meeting to describe the administration’s human rights position and respond to the country’s concerns. Alexander Maugeri, US deputy assistant attorney general, said authorities in Minnesota had filed second-degree murder and manslaughter charges following Floyd's death.

“A number of member states raised concerns about discrimination and excessive force in policing. Where there is misconduct by police officers or law enforcement agencies, state and federal law provide remedies, ” Maugeri said.

However, Maugeri acknowledged “while the vast majority of police officers do their job bravely and righteously, it's undeniable that some police officers have not lived up to their responsibilities, which has led some - including some in the African American or black community - to have less confidence in our criminal justice system.”

“Our constitution mandates equal protection of the laws, and nothing less is acceptable, ” he added.

Switzerland, France, and Spain were among the many countries that called on the US to halt the use of the death penalty and to lift current sanctions on the International Criminal Court (ICC) which the Trump administration refuses to recognise.

More than a dozen countries including Australia, the United Kingdom and Austria also raised concerns about the US position on family planning and access to sexual and reproductive health rights, with Australia calling on the US to “ensure that laws committing refusals of care based on religious and moral beliefs do not restrict women's sexual and reproductive health and rights and that measures are put in place to monitor and prevent violations of these rights. ”

Delegates from Cuba and Venezuela called for equal access to healthcare during the pandemic and the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. China, Germany and Colombia were joined by many others in demanding better treatment of migrants, raising concerns over the detention of migrant children and the separation from their families.

Some activists including Amnesty International hailed the examination of the US in the latest UPR session as an indictment of the Trump administration, and have called for President-elect Joe Biden to bring in new reforms to combat human rights abuses.


US civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, one of the recent winners of the Right to Livelihood award, spoke to Geneva Solutions about US' human rights record, police violence and bringing about reforms to its criminal justice system. Read the interview