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From Rhetoric to Reality: The Time has Come for the Obama Administration to Take Concrete Steps to Adopt International Human Rights Standards

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The U.S. reached a milestone last week when it underwent the first comprehensive review of its human rights record as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. The review is a forum for U.N. member states to ask questions and make recommendations on the status of human rights within the U.S. The Administration sent an impressive 33 member delegation to the review in Geneva, demonstrating that it is taking engagement with the international community seriously. But the real test of the Administration's commitment to domestic human rights will be the actions the Administration takes at home to respect, protect and fulfill the full panoply of rights within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The clear message that emerged from the review is the need for a domestic policy framework that is predicated on the standards laid out in core human rights treaties. Fifty-seven UN members participated in the U.S. review, providing remarkably consistent recommendations on steps the U.S. should take to strengthen human rights protections, including accession to human rights treaties.

Countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, as well as 19 others, called on the U.S. to take steps to ratify core international human rights treaties, particularly the Women's Rights Convention (CEDAW), the Children's Rights Convention (CRC), the Disabilities' Convention (CRPD) and the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Convention (ICESCR). These recommendations echoed the concerns that U.S. advocates presented in a coalition report on treaty ratification submitted to the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights as part of the review. The United States has signed each of these treaties (agreeing not to violate their object and purpose) but has failed to ratify them. The U.S.' continued refusal to join these treaties lies in marked contrast to its participation in the drafting and negotiation of several of the treaty texts. It also calls into question the seriousness of this Administration's rhetorical commitments to advance human rights here in the U.S.

When presenting its candidacy to join the Human Rights Council, the current Administration noted its commitment "to work[ ] with its legislative branch to consider the possible ratification of human rights treaties, including but not limited to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women." Last week in Geneva, the Administration re-affirmed that ratification of the CRPD and CEDAW were priorities but fell short of indicating the concrete steps it will take to lead efforts toward ratification.

In comments during the review and at a townhall meeting with civil society directly afterwards, the U.S. delegation's rhetoric emphasized the universal nature of human rights and repeatedly invoked the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped draft the UDHR, which places economic and social rights on equal footing with civil and political rights. There was little mention, however, of how this Administration will work to translate the rights contained in the UDHR into reality here at home.

While the United States has one of the highest national incomes in the world, among OECD countries it has some of the worst social indicators, which are in turn marked by stark gender and racial disparities. Social spending pales in comparison to defense spending and the social programs that do exist are often regressive in nature and often in contradiction to human rights principles.

Human rights treaties provide a framework to address these issues and foster an environment where basic dignity and equality can become a reality for all of us. Joining these treaties will allow the U.S. to monitor domestic conditions in light of universally accepted standards, promote national dialogue on conditions with the U.S. and provide guidance to address existing disparities. Ratification and implementation would also provide the United States legitimacy and credibility in its efforts to advance human rights abroad and lead the international community by example.

In order to live up to the commitments made on the world stage in Geneva, the Obama Administration must demonstrate leadership in the area of human rights by affirmatively supporting all human rights, including economic and social rights and engaging Congress to move treaty ratification forward. Taking concrete steps to educate members of Congress and federal agency officials about human rights standards, through briefings and public support for ratification would be a clear signal that this Administration is ready to move beyond rhetoric and make human rights a reality.