U.S. Human Rights Commitments to UN Could Help Charities

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March 31, 2011

The United States took the final step in the United Nations Human Rights Counicl's (HRC) review of the U.S. human rights record in Geneva, Switzerland on March 18, 2011, making commitments that could positively impact the operations of charities and grantmakers that encounter barriers to aid that national security laws create. The extent of such potential changes will depend on effective follow-up communications between the U.S. government and the U.S. nonprofit sector.

The UN's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the U.S. began in early 2010 when many U.S. organizations  submitted comments and recommendations on U.S. human rights practices. (View the submission on behalf of charitable groups) The Department of State held a series of consultations with U.S. civil society  and filed a report with the HRC in August. In November the U.S. delegation appeared before a HRC working group, which published a draft report with 228 recommendations from 56 countries. 

Additional Information:

The U.S. supported or partially supported many of the recommendations in its March appearance before the HRC. Perhaps the most significant commitments that could help charities and grantmakers is a commitment to proceed with Senate ratification of Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts.  Article 18 of Protocol II states that:

"If the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of the supplies essential for its survival, such as foodstuffs and medical supplies, relief actions for the civilian population which are of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature and which are conducted without any adverse distinction shall be undertaken subject to the consent of the High Contracting Party concerned." [emphasis added]

Article 18 also notes that relief societies "may offer their services for the performance of their traditional functions in relation to the victims of the armed conflict." U.S. ratification could help charities gain access to non-combatants in need of aid in situations where laws prohibiting material support of terrorism bar them from negotiating such access when groups on the terrorist list control territory.

Other recommendations the U.S. supported, in whole or in part, include agreement to:

  • Make domestic anti-terrorism legislation and actions consistent with human rights standards, "insofar as they recommend compliance with our international law obligations."
  • Respond and follow up on recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, which emphasized the need for periodic review of emergency powers and establishing due process for people and entities placed on terrorist lists. A summary of the report is here
  • Review U.S. law for consistency with international human rights obligations
  • Incorporate human rights training into public policies
  • Strengthen aid and development, particularly in response to natural disasters
  • Continue consulting with non-governmental organizations.

A representative of Human Rights Watch spoke at the proceedings, noting that "today's report by the U.S. is a gateway, not an endpoint. The recommendations accepted by t he U.S. will become meaningless without follow through." State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh, who led the U.S. delegation, told the HRC that the U.S. consulted civil society groups throughout the process. Those groups now are urging the government to create an interagency mechanism to continue that consultation. For these commitments to benefit charities and grantmakers working in conflict zones, ongoing discussion of how to eliminate unnecessary barriers to their work caused by national security laws needs to be a priority. The Charity and Security Network will be working to facilitate these discussions.