State Department Cites Arizona Law in UN Human Rights Report

By Chad Burchard | September 14, 2010

UNHRC Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona


The U.S. State Department caused quite a stir with its decision to include S.B. 1070 (Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law) in a report that it submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Most of the 29-page report submitted on August 20th dwells on other matters, but one paragraph, number 95, in a section on “immigration and vales” notes that:

“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 authority to set and enforce immigration law. That action is ongoing; parts of the law are currently enjoined.”

In an August 27th letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer protested the inclusion of this paragraph in the report and asked for its removal.

“Simply put, it is downright offensive that the U.S. State Department included the State of Arizona and S.B. 1070 in a report to the United Nations Council on Human Rights, whose members include such renowned human rights ‘champions’ as Cuba and Libya.”

The report itself was prepared in connection with the State Department’s first “Universal Periodic Review” (UPC), a process in which the United States now submits its human rights record along with other UNHRC members to an examination by the UNHRC. The UN General Assembly established the UNHRC in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was heavily criticized for having a poor human rights record.

Few Americans had probably heard of UPR or the UNHRC until now, but conservatives have long been skeptical. In a recent article, Heritage Foundation scholars Brett Schaefer and Steven Groves described UPR as “farcical” and “little more than a ‘mutual praise society’ for repressive regimes” that “create[s] the opportunity for human rights abusers to take unjustified shots at America’s human rights record.” [The Universal Periodic Review: Flawed from the Start, Brett Schaefer and Steven Groves, Heritage Foundation, August 26, 2010]

As Schaefer and Groves explain, the UNHRC has proven little better than its predecessor at holding governments accountable for human rights violations. Several UNHRC members have appalling records on human rights but exploit U.N. rules and procedures to block criticism. The result is that these nations routinely file misleading UPR reports that go more or less unchallenged.

China, for example, claimed in its UPR report that its citizens enjoy freedom of speech, press, and religious freedom. Cuba claimed that it respects the rights of “freedom of opinion, expression and the press.” North Korea declared that it provides for “the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, demonstration and association.”

The Bush administration opted not to join the UNHRC, but the Obama administration reversed that policy and secured U.S. membership in the Council. Schaefer and Groves believe that other UNHRC members, “deeply resentful of the U.S. and its practice of criticizing their human rights records … will seize with great glee the opportunity to accuse the U.S. of violating the rights of its citizens (and non-citizens).”

And indeed there is every reason to believe that this will be the case. Back in May, several U.N. human rights experts released a statement warning that “[a] disturbing pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities and immigrants has been established with the adoption of” the Arizona law. [UN human rights experts say Arizona immigration law could violate international standards, Eliane Engeler, Associated Press, May 11, 2010].

Ironically, the statement was made a little over a week after Gov. Brewer approved changes to S.B. 1070 that provided greater protections against racial profiling. As those familiar with the law know, police are required to ask about immigration status only when they have stopped a person for some other offense and have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is an illegal alien. The changes to the law that Brewer signed prohibit an officer from using race as a factor in forming such reasonable suspicion.

Shortly after the U.N. experts weighed in, Cuban lawmakers passed a resolution condemning the Arizona law as “racist and xenophobic” and a “brutal violation of human rights.” [Cuban Lawmakers Denounce Arizona Immigration Law, Paul Haven, Associated Press, May 20 2010]. Cuba, as noted earlier, is a UNHRC member that claims to stand for freedom of speech even as it regularly jails political dissidents.

At around the same time, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner informed the press that in recent talks with Chinese leaders, he and other State Department officials described the Arizona law as a “troubling trend” in American society. According to Posner, the Chinese did not even raise the issue themselves. [US Cites AZ Immigration Law During Human Rights Talks with China, Conservatives Call It An Apology, Kirit Radia,, May 17, 2010].

Mexico, of course, has been the most vociferous critic of the law, and while it might not be a repressive regime in the mold of China or Cuba, it is hardly in a position to criticize Arizona. Though many do not realize it, Mexico has its own problems with illegal immigration, most of which comes from nearby Central American nations. Mexico has attacked the Arizona law as a violation of human rights, but it regularly turns a blind eye to widespread police brutality towards its own illegal alien population.

In covering this issue, The Arizona Republic quoted a Honduran illegal alien in Mexico as saying “[t]here (in the United States) they’ll deport you,” while “[i]n Mexico, they’ll probably let you go, but they’ll beat you up and steal everything you’ve got first.” Melissa Vertiz, a human rights activist based in Tapachula, Mexico, told the paper that “[t]he Mexican government should probably clean up its own house before looking at someone else’s.” [Experts: Mexico harasses immigrants as it criticizes Arizona immigration law, Chris Hawley, The Arizona Republic, May 27, 2010].

Thus far, the State Department has stood by its decision to include mention of the Arizona law in its report to the UNHRC. The State Department has also reaffirmed its commitment to UPR. One can perhaps take some solace at least in the fact that the report did not outright condemn the Arizona law.

For her part, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer derided the UPR process. In her letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

“The idea or our own American government submitting the duly enacted laws of a State of the United States to ‘review’ by the United Nations is internationalism run amok and unconstitutional. Human rights as guaranteed by the United States and Arizona Constitutions are expressly protected in S.B. 1070 and defended vigorously by my Administration.”

The situation in which our nation now finds itself is really quite extraordinary. A state has passed a law to combat illegal immigration that contains explicit protections against racial profiling. Other nations guilty of perpetrating or tolerating terrible human rights abuses accuse the United States of racism and brutality. Meanwhile, rather than defend the law, the executive branch launches a lawsuit against the state that passed it and elects to participate in a dubious process that will allow a body numbering several brutal dictatorships among its members to sit in judgment on our nation’s human rights record.

It is indeed an appalling spectacle, but one should keep in mind that despite the hypocrisy of foreign governments and the disapproval of the media and the executive branch, polls consistently show that a majority of Americans still stand behind Arizona. Despite so much determined opposition, the fight for serious immigration reform continues to gain strength.