Last week, Arizona's Republican governor Janice Brewer accused the Obama administration of subjecting U.S. immigration law to U.N. review, saying it was an example of "internationalism run amok and unconstitutional."
But Obama is hardly the first American president to consult the United Nations. In fact, Republican administrations have been subjecting policies on immigration, detention treatment, and a host of other human rights issues to some form of scrutiny by the U.N. and other international bodies for years.
Brewer was protesting the Obama administration's inclusion of a provision highlighting the Department of Justice's efforts to challenge a controversial Arizona immigration law, SB 1070, which expands police powers to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal alien.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Brewer said it is "downright offensive" that the State Department had included the Arizona law in its report to the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, which includes "such renowned human rights ‘champions' as Cuba and Libya."
The United States has ratified 13 human rights treaties on issues dealing with torture, slavery, child labor, discrimination and human trafficking. Most require regular reporting to U.N. or other international oversight bodies. American presidents have signed five additional human rights treaties that have not been ratified by Congress, however, those don't require compliance.
In 2007, for instance, the Bush administration filed a 117-page report to the committee of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination that addressed international concerns about indigenous rights, racial profiling of Arab-Americans, and abuses of African-American prisoners. "The government of the United States of America welcomes the opportunity to report to the committee," the report states.
The report provides a detailed explanation of how the newly created Department of Homeland Security, which was established after the 9/11 terror attacks, included a division to investigate allegations of racial, sexual, or religious discrimination in the new agency. It also flagged an outreach program that aimed at reaching out to Arab-American and Muslim communities.
The Bush administration acknowledged that "significant challenges still exist" in combating discrimination in the United States. "Subtle, and in some cases overt, forms of discrimination against minority individuals and groups continue to plague American society, reflecting attitudes that persist from a legacy of segregation, ignorant stereotyping, and disparities in opportunity and achievement," the report stated.
The Bush administration also conceded that despite gains in improving race relations in the United States, a "great deal of work needs to be done" -- citing an increase in bias crimes against "people perceived to be Muslim, or of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent, after the terrorist attacks of 911."
In her letter to Clinton, Brewer demanded that the State Department remove the passage referring to the Arizona law before the rights council considers the U.S. report later this year. "If you chose not to do so, the State of Arizona will monitor the proceedings and assert any rights it has in the process. Be assured that the State of Arizona will fight any attempt by the U.S. Department of States and the United Nations to interfere with the duly enacted laws of the State of Arizona in accordance with the U.S. Constitution."
The 47-nation council was established in March 2006 to replace the 60-year old Human Rights Commission, which lost international credibility after countries with poor rights records, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, used their membership in the rights body to block criticism of their actions. The Bush administration refused to join the commission on the grounds that it would lend it legitimacy, but it participated as an observer in its proceedings and provided financial support.
The Obama administration joined the council in March 2009, arguing that it would be more productive to try to reform the body, which it views as flawed, from within rather than from outside.
Under the terms of the council's charter, all members must submit a report known as a Universal Periodic Review on steps they are taking to address human rights abuses within their own borders. The U.S. presented its first report to the commission last week.
As per normal protocol, the membership will review the report and make comments on it. A troika of three countries will then prepare and submit a final report on the review. But the council has no authority to impose its views on any government, or on the state of Arizona. "It is a gross misstatement of how the universal periodic process works," Peggy Hicks, an expert on the council at Human Rights Watch, said of Brewer's contention. "We think it has moral authority to push states to meet their human rights obligations, but the fear that this process can ride roughshod over the U.S. Constitutional is completely unfounded."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.