09/16/2010 02:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The U.S. Human Rights Report: Courage and Candor Are Signs of Strength

Last year, I was part of an official U.S. delegation that met with members of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. President Obama had just given his groundbreaking speech in Cairo, where he declared that the U.S. respects Islam and is not at war with the entire Muslim world. The speech showed that our country is returning to the world community and is eager to engage in open and honest dialogue with countries with whom we have quarreled. And the participants in our meeting from predominantly Muslim nations received us with hopefulness, not hostility.

Now the Obama administration has taken another step to address the rest of the world, straightforwardly, not stridently. The U.S. State Department has submitted its first-ever report to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council. The report is part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process where all 192 U.N. member states are required to submit self-audits of their human rights records, based on their compliance with their own laws and the international human rights treaties they have signed.

For the U.S., the international human rights treaties we've signed aren't just documents - they're ringing declarations of democratic values that we have inspired, advocated, and often helped to author. Indeed, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights draws heavily upon the U.S. Declaration of Independence and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech. It was written by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who presented it to the U.N. General Assembly.

The UPR report positively presents America's principles and practices on human rights. At some length, the report describes our country's founding values, our historic progress on civil and human rights, and recent advances, from health care reform to hate crimes legislation. Yes, the report does describe some of the nation's most difficult dilemmas, including racial and economic inequality. I regret that space limitations prevented more detailed discussions of such issues as our country's high rates of incarceration and the disproportionate imprisonment of racial and ethnic minorities. But this report clearly reflects a commitment to face facts about America's shortcomings as well as our successes, to measure human rights by a single yardstick, and to practice at home what we preach abroad.

Still, the report has been attacked by a chorus of conservatives, including think tanks, editorial pages, and politicos. The Heritage Foundation acknowledges that the report is "largely a factual presentation of U.S. laws, standards, and other efforts to promote human rights." However, Heritage contends, the report "create[s] the opportunity for some of the world's most repressive regimes to criticize the U.S. human rights record."

Seemingly denouncing a different document from what Heritage read, the Wall Street Journal warns that the paper subjects the U.S. to "minute scrutiny" and reflects "the usual beating of the liberal breast."

There are those who believe that acknowledging America's continuing challenges leaves us open to criticism by dictatorial regimes that allow no criticism by their own people and admit no faults to the world community. But Americans usually have the courage to face and fix our failings. Some of us with gray in our hair remember how, in the early 1960's, the Soviet Union deflected criticism by condemning the U.S. record on racial issues. But, when he nominated a new director of the U.S. Information Agency, President John F. Kennedy selected the famed journalist Edward R. Murrow and supported his pledge to present America to the world "warts and all." President Kennedy understood what another great leader of that era, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously declared: "It is not a sign of weakness but a sign of high maturity to rise to the level of self-criticism."

The U.S. human rights report is in the great American tradition of Kennedy, King, and Murrow. As we strive for human rights, at home and abroad, the nation needs more, not less, courage and candor.

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals.