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U.N. raps U.S. civil rights record on secret programs

Mar. 27, 2014 - 05:46PM   |  
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GENEVA — A U.N. panel has found serious shortcomings in the United States’ civil rights record, with experts citing Thursday a lack of adequate oversight and transparency in national security programs dealing with everything from electronic surveillance to targeted drone killings and secret detentions.

The report by the U.N. Human Rights Committee, a panel of 18 independent experts from different countries, found general improvement in some areas — such as the handling of rights of indigenous peoples and the Guantanamo Bay prisoners — since the last such review in 2006.

And while the panel’s experts made clear they generally view the U.S. as a promoter of human rights, they also found major concerns while examining compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“It’s one of the top concerns, the lack of transparency, secrecy,” committee member Walter Kaelin, a prominent Swiss legal expert, told The Associated Press about the National Security Agency electronic surveillance, use of drone strikes against al-Qaida and the Taliban and CIA secret rendition programs closed in 2012.

“We all know that the rights of individuals are very well protected in the United States, and we are not second-guessing that. But there are for certain serious issues, yes.”

Some of the areas dealt with by the panel include the prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners, sentencing of life without parole for juvenile offenders, racial disparities in the use of the death penalty and laws hindering felons from voting. Other areas include solitary confinement, racial profiling, gun violence, excessive use of force by law enforcement officials and domestic violence.

Kaelin said there were concerns about the federal government’s inability to ensure compliance on state and local levels, and its long-held views the treaty only applies to its actions on U.S. soil but can’t be used as the basis for any U.S. court action.

The panel’s report is based on questioning of a U.S. delegation this month that included Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to represent city and state interests.

“The U.S. insists it has no international legal obligations to respect the privacy rights of foreigners outside its borders, but one of the U.N.’s most important human rights bodies has now made clear it disagrees,” said Andrea Prasow, a senior counsel for Human Rights Watch who attended the panel’s hearings.

Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, a Pentagon legal counsel, said the U.S. isn’t detaining anyone under 18 in an armed conflict, but 2,500 who fit that description when they were captured were once held in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo.

President Obama addressed some of the U.N. committee’s concerns when he asked Congress on Thursday to end the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. Obama’s plan is for the government to get a court order and ask phone companies to search their records for specific numbers believed to be associated with terrorists.

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