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New report on human rights in United States analyzed

STANFORD -- Capital punishment is one of several obvious ways in which this nation, the world's most vocal advocate of human rights, violates a growing international consensus on the definition of human rights, the country's highest ranking human rights official told a campus audience on Thursday, April 27.

John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, came to campus to discuss the significance of his testimony three weeks ago to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights -- the first time the U.S. government has testified on its own human rights record before the international body. Shattuck conceded, however, that throughout his questioning by the 18-member U.N. commission he was conscious of his position as representative of a nation that, on the whole, is still somewhat of a hostile witness.

At the Stanford forum, sponsored by the Stanford Committee on Law and Human Rights, civil rights lawyer Paul Hoffman, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, criticized the Clinton administration for doing too little to promote awareness of the U.S. government's human rights position with the American public. But he agreed with Shattuck, also a former ACLU litigator, that Shattuck's report to the United Nations -- the United States' first effort to comply with its obligations under a human rights treaty that President Bush signed in 1992 -- was a significant, if small, step for universal human rights.

Until recently, Shattuck's job and that of his predecessors at the Human Rights Bureau of the State Department has been to analyze and report on the human rights records of other nations. Their mammoth annual report, now available on the Internet along with the new report on the United States, has grown more critical in recent years of the human rights records of U.S. allies, Shattuck said. The allies don't like the criticism, but it reflects the changing political terrain since the collapse of the communist world, as well as the position of the Clinton administration.

As long as there was a Soviet Union, Shattuck said, the highest levels of the U.S. government refused to have this government's record reviewed by the U.N. apparatus. Leaders in both political parties, he said, considered the commission a propaganda vehicle for the nation's ideological enemies. The Senate, in ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, did so with reservations, he said. The legislation noted the U.S. Constitution's higher standards for freedom of speech and the Supreme Court's acceptance of the death penalty. The legislation also said the United States did not consider the treaty "self- enforcing," a phrase that signals that treaty provisions may not be acceptable as a basis for individuals to appeal domestic laws in U.S. courts. The only enforcement provision in the treaty that the federal government has accepted so far is to make an annual report to the international commission. The new report includes references to past human rights abuses, such as racial slavery, and to remaining problems in achieving equity for ethnic minorities, women and immigrants, he said.

The specific reservations in the ratifying legislation, Shattuck said, "reflected the political realities" at the time it was passed and today. "The current state of democratic choice and the Supreme Court" in the United States, he said, run counter to the trends in the world as a whole on some key issues. The "real question," he added, is how the covenant will be applied domestically and whether the reservations made by the Senate in ratifying it can be changed over time. "Ratifying a treaty is the beginning, not the end," he said.

Shattuck claimed that the Clinton administration is conducting a "serious review" of domestic government's compliance with the treaty's terms and is planning training sessions for government officials. "No doubt gaps exist in enforcement of rights," he said. "We believe federal law satisfies our obligations under the covenant, so we haven't asked the states to adopt new legislation."

To deliver the first U.N. report on March 31, Shattuck was accompanied by 23 other government officials representing the departments of State, Justice and Interior as well as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"There were still plenty of sparks in the air," he said, as the hearing room was filled with representatives of private organizations critical of U.S. human rights, particularly the maintenance of death rows in many states and death penalties for persons under age 18.

Another reason the report was remarkable, Shattuck said, is that there is a "growing attack in the United States on the United Nations itself," with talk show hosts, Sen. Jesse Helms and others seeing the United Nations as a financial drain and an inefficient bureaucracy. The country's attitude, he said, also reflects citizens' pride in their liberal democratic freedoms, which many consider superior to those anywhere else in the world, and concerns over giving up any U.S. sovereignty.

At the Stanford forum, Hoffman followed Shattuck with a "bad news" report for universal human rights and domestic civil rights advocates. He noted first that a public defender in Oregon was not permitted to use Article 15 of the covenant, which pledges the treaty's signers not to retain people in prison under sentencing laws that are no longer in effect.

The Oregon legislature repealed a harsh drug sentencing law under which the public defender's client had been sentenced, but Oregon courts refused to reduce the sentence. The U.S. government maintains, Hoffman said, that it never accepted Article 15 of the treaty and that the treaty is not self-enforcing anyway.

"Juvenile executions may be a [political] hot button," he conceded to Shattuck, "but retroactive legislation?"

In one of his own cases, Hoffman said, he tried to use the treaty before the U.S. Supreme Court in February on behalf of a prisoner in Hawaii who had been placed in solitary confinement without due process. Shattuck's report to the United Nations, Hoffman said, states that the United States recognizes rights to due process but also says that segregation can be imposed without due process for persons already convicted of crimes.

Hoffman said he was surprised, therefore, when the U.S. solicitor general filed a motion for the government to enter the case on his client's side. But, he said, 38 state solicitors general then told the Supreme Court it was a state issue and "somebody above the [U.S.] solicitor general -- who, we don't know, maybe Clinton -- decided not to come in on my side."

These cases illustrate, he said, the problem judges will have "meshing domestic and international law" unless the Department of Justice is willing to assign a lawyer to review such cases and consider filing briefs. At this point, he concluded, U.S. involvement with the treaty is "something for international consumption." Nevertheless, he said, filing the report with the United Nations was an "extremely important step" in a long-term process, and "it's hard to imagine the previous administration doing it."

Shattuck agreed, saying that the development of a global structure for obtaining universal human rights is "not popular territory we are talking about but important territory."

He noted that four times as many people had been killed in the 20th century by their own governments as had been killed in wars with other nations. Gradually, a consensus has broadened to condemn such acts as genocide and forced separation of families. Recent positive developments, he said, include important institutional reforms, such as the establishment of war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the Truth Commission's investigation of the patterns of military abuse in El Salvador. But universal human rights, he added, "is still a work in progress" and won't continue to proceed without U.S. domestic involvement.



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