Does the US meet its own international human-rights standards?

Police officers arrest a demonstrator during a march after a vigil held for Kimani "Kiki" Gray in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, Wednesday,...
Police officers arrest a demonstrator during a march after a vigil held for Kimani "Kiki" Gray in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, Wednesday,...
John Minchillo/AP

A broad umbrella group of American human and civil rights groups has filed a joint submission to the United Nations, calling for the United States and the Obama administration to hold itself to the same international standards of human rights compliance as it does other nations.

In more than 30 so-called shadow reports filed by the U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN), advocacy groups raised a number of concerns and issues, including racial profiling, gun violence, stop-and-frisk policies and Stand Your Ground laws.

“While USHRN recognizes the positive steps the U.S. has made towards the advancement of human rights, it remains concerned about the general trend of the country and the large number of individuals whose rights as provided for under the [International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights] remain unprotected, in particular the racial, ethnic, gender, and class disparities that persist in the enjoyment of those rights,” the USHRN wrote in its submission.

The reports were filed this week with the U.N. Human Rights Committee, ahead of next month’s annual review of the United States as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty in Geneva, Switzerland, which ensures equality and individual freedoms.

“A lot of times when we see social injustice in the United States, we don’t understand them as human rights violations,” said Ejim Dike, the executive director of the USHRN. “But they are. The big message is that the United States is not exceptional,” Dike said. “The U.S. has human rights obligations like every other country in the world and we expect the administration to be in full compliance with those obligations under international human rights law.”

Groups submitting reports via the USHRN include the ACLU, the NAACP and the Dream Defenders, a group of mostly 20-something college students who rose to prominence this summer after it occupied the Florida governor’s office for 31 days in protest of the state’s Stand Your Ground laws.

“The government wants to say, ‘Compared to Somalia, we’re great.’ But at the end of the day, even the U.S. can’t comply with its obligations under international human rights treatise,” said Meena Jagannath of the Community Justice Project, which co-authored a report on Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. The laws, which give wide discretion in the use of self-defense, initially gave legal cover to George Zimmerman, who was acquitted this summer in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

In the report, the group says there’s evidence that homicide rates have risen in states that have instituted Stand Your Ground laws, that the laws perpetuate discrimination and have been applied in a racially biased manner which–viewed in the context of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, one of three global human and civil rights treaties the United States has signed–could be a violation. The U.S. is among 167 countries signed onto the  ICCPR, which it entered in 1976. The ICCPR is a binding human rights treaty, which essentially makes it law in the country of the signotories.

The reports are “a platform that we use to pressure the administration to uphold human rights law,” Dike said. “Just like the U.S. government is calling on every other country to uphold, it is accountable to the same human rights law as every other country in the world.”

Civil and human rights groups have used the U.N. to pressure the government for more than a half-century, raising a wide range of issues from the lynching of African-Americans to voting rights.

Other issues addressed in the current reports include gender rights, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the criminalization of homeless people, immigrant rights, juvenile sentencing and the death penalty. The report also addressed massive school closures in Chicago and exposure to chemicals.

Earlier this month the U.N. called on federal officials to demonstrate compliance by examining the discriminatory impact of policies like stop and frisk, a practice implemented by the New York Police Department.

“The world is paying attention to what is happening in New York,” said Nahal Zamani, the advocacy program manager for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which wrote the shadow report on New York City’s stop and frisk policy. Last month a federal judge ruled that the police department’s use of the tactic violated the constitutional rights of those targeted for stops, and called for sweeping reforms to the department and practice.

“Law enforcement agencies have a really critical role in people’s lives,” Zamani said. “Because they administer justice. They either take it away from you or ensure that you have it.”