The US has put up its defence at the United Nations in Geneva over charges that it is guilty of widespread human rights violations, claiming that the military commissions at Guantanámo Bay meet – and exceed – fair trial standards and that agencies engaging in mass surveillance are subject to “rigorous oversight”.
The US delegation delivered its rebuttal on Friday to the strong criticism it has faced from members of the UN human rights committee. Over two days, the committee has pressed hard questions about the US human rights record, from National Security Agency data mining to racial discrimination and rampant gun violence.
The interaction between the US and the committee is part of a process, completed every five years, to review whether the country is meeting its commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the US ratified in 1992. At the end of the process, the committee will produce a non-binding final report that is aimed at encouraging the US at all levels of government to improve its policies in areas of perceived weakness.
US officials sought to fend off the committee’s criticisms, focusing particularly on Guantánamo and the mass dragnet of data exposed by Edward Snowden. The delegation insisted that the 154 detainees still being held in Guantánamo are there “lawfully both under international law and US law”.
Officials disputed that any of the detainees had been “cleared for release”. Rather, they were subject to review board assessments every six months to see whether “continued lawful detention is necessary to protect against a continuing threat against the US”.
Just three days after the first Guantánamo detainee lodged the first legal challenge to force feeding at the base in a US federal court, alleging he had been subjected to a form of torture known as the “water cure”, the US delegation in Geneva claimed detainees had “access to exceptional healthcare” and said: “It is the policy of the US to support the preservation of life in a humane manner.”
On the NSA, the US delegation insisted that the dragnet of data collected by the agency was lawful, constitutional and subject to substantial oversight. Bruce Swartz, a senior attorney at the department of justice, told the committee the data was collected “only for a valid purpose – foreign intelligence and counter-terrorism”.
He added that the collection was “subject to rigorous oversight, multi-layered oversight” that included the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The fact that the 11 judges on the court had approved the vast majority of requests from the NSA, he said, “indicates not that they are not independent, but the care that is made”.
The defence of rigorous oversight was immediately disputed by non-governmental groups that have also travelled to Geneva to attend the hearing. The American Civil Liberties Union recirculated a paperprepared for the meeting in which it casts doubts on efforts by the Obama administration to reform the NSA’s data-gathering techniques.
The ACLU points out that the reforms that President Barack Obama has discussed are “yet to be implemented, and in any event, fail to satisfy the requirements of Article 17 of the ICCPR. Rather than placing meaningful limits on the NSA’s worldwide spying activities, President Obama has cemented the role of bulk collection of global communications in NSA’s mission”.
Committee members were given one final round of questions to the US delegation before the session was closed. Zonke Majodina of South Africa said she sympathised with Obama’s position, stated on several occasions, that closing Guantánamo was complex and would take time. But she went on to ask: “If it does eventually close, does it mean the US renounces the practice of administrative detention?”