- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A new State Department report on America’s human rights record praises many of President Obama’s domestic reforms in making the case to the world body for U.S. progress on human rights.

The 29-page report is the first to be submitted by the United States this week to the U.N. Human Rights Council and will be the basis of a human rights audit that U.S. representatives will take part in later this year.

The human rights audit, also known as the universal periodic review, is required of all U.N. member states. China, Iran and North Korea have already submitted their human rights records to the review.

The report — which addresses America’s history of slavery, discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and gays — sounds in parts like political campaign literature.

For example, in a section about equality for people with disabilities the report states, “President Obama further demonstrated the nation’s commitment to continued vigilance and improvement by announcing new regulations that increase accessibility in a variety of contexts and commit the federal government to hiring more persons with disabilities.”

The report touts Mr. Obama’s new health care and finance reforms, signed into law earlier this year, but also lesser-known pieces of legislation, like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which gives women the right to sue employers if they are paid less than men, as an example of the president’s commitment to gender equality.

The review highlights the president’s announced commitment to repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning open gays in the military; and also what the document calls the “historic summit” in November with nearly 400 Native American tribal leaders.

Mr. Obama reversed policy of the George W. Bush administration and instructed the State Department to participate in the reformed Human Rights Council that has to date devoted almost all of its time to criticizing Israel, while devoting little or no attention to human rights crises in places like Sudan, Iran, China or Saudi Arabia. Many countries serving on the panel, like Libya, have been singled out as authoritarian abusers of human rights.

Tom Malinowksi, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said, “You won’t have a report from the administration condemning administration policies. But it does acknowledge a lot of ongoing problems and concerns within the United States and that is essential. The whole point of this is to set a good example for others.”

In some sections, the report is critical of U.S. policies. It discusses the rate of sexual assault in U.S. prisons and the U.S. detention of suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison as areas the country is looking to reform.

In some areas, the report reflects the Obama administration’s own walk down from its earlier campaign rhetoric opposing a global war on terrorism.

For example, while the report states that international law informs U.S. policy on detentions, it says the United States also reserves the right to try detainees in military tribunals, a policy many Democrats argued was deeply flawed under President Bush.

“The President has also made clear that we have a national security interest in prosecuting terrorists, either before Article III courts or military commissions, and that we would exhaust all available avenues to prosecute Guantanamo detainees before deciding whether it would be appropriate to continue detention under the laws of war.”

One section of the document that makes no reference to Mr. Obama’s specific policies is the part that deals with the rights to privacy.

In this area, the report makes an argument that laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, governing electronic surveillance, may need to be revised to address new challenges like terrorism and new technology.

“Protecting our national interests may involve new arrangements to confronting threats like terrorism,” the report said. “But these structures and practices must always be in line with our Constitution and preserve the rights and freedoms of our people.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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