Arizona Heat: Another Reason to Question U.S. Participation in the Human Rights Council

Brett Schaefer /

The fact that the Obama Administration mentioned the Arizona law involving illegal immigration and the federal government’s legal challenge in its submission to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) for the upcoming review of America’s human rights record under the Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has been raising eyebrows.

The UPR is a relatively new effort created by the HRC (at the instruction of the U.N. General Assembly resolution establishing the council) to review the human rights practices of all countries in the world. The UPR began in 2008 and is scheduled to examine 48 countries each year so that every country is examined once in a four-year cycle. The U.S. is up for review in November.

The United States’ UPR report is a laundry list of everything under the sun related to human rights in the U.S., from how the U.S. protects fundamental freedoms of expression, religion, association, and political participation to fairness and equal protection under the law to domestic public policy programs designed to address social issues to the rights and treatment of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay. A large part of the report involves stating what U.S. law is and current actions being undertaken in the courts relating to human rights. Inclusion of the Arizona immigration issue in the report, especially since the Administration challenged it in court, is hardly surprising.

What is surprising and objectionable is the manner in which the Arizona issue is presented:

A recent Arizona law, S.B. 1070, has generated significant attention and debate at home and around the world. The issue is being addressed in a court action that argues that the federal government has the authority to set and enforce immigration law. That action is ongoing; parts of the law are currently enjoined.

President Obama remains firmly committed to fixing our broken immigration system, because he recognizes that our ability to innovate, our ties to the world, and our economic prosperity depend on our capacity to welcome and assimilate immigrants. The Administration will continue its efforts to work with the U.S. Congress and affected communities toward this end.

This phrasing subtly disparages the Arizona law and presents the Administration’s position as morally and legally correct. The Administration likely believes this to be true—it did challenge the Arizona law in court—but it should be neutral when characterizing unsettled domestic legal issues internationally.

Unfortunately, the Administration fell victim to the temptation to aggrandize its record and disparage its opponents in several parts of the report. For instance, President Obama is referred to over 20 times in the 25-page report (minus appendices), and his health care reform is credited with vast achievements that have yet to be realized, if they ever will. The Administration deserves to be criticized for using politically what is supposed to be an objective report on the U.S. human rights record.

But, as discussed in a recent Heritage paper, the larger problem isn’t what is in the report; it is why we are participating in this farce in the first place. The Bush Administration rightly distanced the U.S. from the HRC and withheld the U.S. share of funding from it. When President Obama decided to support and engage the council, he extended America’s credibility to a fatally flawed body. He also made it inevitable that the U.S. would participate in the dog-and-pony UPR show that it has proven to be—a process little more than a “mutual praise society” for repressive regimes.

The Obama Administration was mistaken to believe it could improve the HRC from within as a member of the council. This is the inevitable result of its naïve faith—in defiance of record and reality—in multilateral institutions.