By: Leila Sadat

The United States has always been proud of its status as a democracy with a commitment to human rights, even though it has often kept its distance from human rights treaty regimes by either refusing to ratify important legal instruments (like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or the Women’s Convention), or attaching reservations, declarations or understandings to others that either attempt to change their meaning or deprive them of domestic effect.

Nonetheless, the overarching commitment of the United States to human rights has been evidenced over the years through the issuance, since 1975, of Country Reports on Human Rights by the U.S. State Department.  Rolled out every year, they provide information on every country in the world, and, in the words of the State Department, “underscore[] our commitment to freedom, democracy, and the human rights guaranteed to all individuals around the world.”  States often criticize the United States for the reports, which they perceive as hypocritical; but they at least have the effect of promoting a dialogue on human rights issues and their importance worldwide.

The 2016 Reports were released on March 3, 2017, but no on-the-record briefing was made; instead, a conference call was held during which reporters could ask questions. At the same time, eyebrows were raised by the fact that neither Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or another high-ranking individual presented the human rights reports themselves on camera, which many observers noted was a departure from past administrations.

The chair for the United States’ representative sits empty at the OAS Hearing on the Isamu Carlos Shibayama and others case, March 21, 2017 [IACHR via Flickr, CC by 2.0]

This week concerns about the new administration’s commitment to human rights were heightened when it refused to attend scheduled hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held from March 15-22, 2017. The United States was scheduled to be heard on the 21st.  The hearings were to discuss President Trump’s Executive Orders on travel and immigration enforcement, the treatment of asylum-seekers and the Dakota Pipeline Project among other things. According to newspaper reports, the administration stated that “it is not appropriate for the United States to participate in these hearings while litigation on these matters is ongoing in U.S. courts,” a claim reminiscent of the rationale relied upon by the 45th President as the basis not to release his tax returns.

Although the State Department spokesperson also stated that the United States has “tremendous respect,” for the role of the Commission, the Commission itself called the absence “troubling” and experts on the Commission and its work noted that the U.S. absence was both unusual and worrying.

The United States was not the only country examined during the hearings, which focused on situations in 16 countries. Cuba and Nicaragua also did not appear at the hearings on their countries.

This is not the first U.S. administration to employ an “empty chair” policy; the Bush administration boycotted meetings of the Preparatory Commission and Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court to signal its disapproval of the Court.

As I have written elsewhere, international human rights law is U.S. law, meaning that the President, under the “Take Care” Clause, the Congress in exercising its authority, the Courts in their interpretations and the States under the Supremacy Clause are all bound to take account thereof, and often to comply therewith. As a Member of the Organization of American States, which has its seat in Washington, D.C., the United States is bound to respect the organs of the OAS, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Organization of American States headquarters in Washington, D.C. [Aude via Wikimedia, CC by 2.5]