US Human Rights Network Blog

US Human Rights Network Blog



Holding the Trump Administration Accountable to Human Rights Violations Through Global Treaty on Civil and Political Rights

Jul 5, 2019

The following message is from the USHRN ICCPR Task Force Co-Chairs, Jamil Dakwar (ACLU) and Elica Vafaie (Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus).

Human rights in the United States are under attack. Every day there are new reports of migrant deaths and grave abuses at the border, direct results of the Trump Administration’s inhumane immigration policies; newly appointed federal judges with lifetime tenure and damning anti-LGBTQ records; and ongoing attacks against reproductive rights domestically and internationally, with the ultimate goal of dismantling Roe v. Wade. The list goes on and American citizens and many elected officials are taking notice and action. 

Since 2016 we have witnessed and participated in protests, countless acts of civil disobedience and national mobilization demanding accountability for civil and human rights violations; grassroots activists and everyday citizens have risen to the challenge of running for local, state and federal offices around the nation. Presidential candidates for 2020 have “human rights” on their lips as they debate immigration, mass incarceration, and healthcare policy. We have also seen regional and international human rights bodies expressing deep concerns regarding the serious setbacks in U.S. commitment to human rights and the unprecedented assaults on democratic values and multilateral institutions. 

June marked the 27th anniversary of the United States’ ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – a legally binding international agreement ratified by 172 countries to protect and preserve basic human rights. The ICCPR obligates countries to respect and protect the right to life and human dignity; equality before the law; freedom of speech, assembly, and association; religious freedom and privacy; freedom from torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention; gender equality; the right to a fair trial; right family life and family unity; and minority rights. Furthermore, the ICCPR compels governments to take administrative, judicial, and legislative measures in order to protect the rights enshrined in the treaty and to provide an effective remedy. As a signatory to the ICCPR, the U.S. government is obligated to implement and uphold the ICCPR at federal, state and local levels

Every country that has ratified the ICCPR is also obligated to report every 4 years on progress made to implement the treaty. As part of that process, the member state (country) submits a report on its own compliance with the treaty and is then subject to a formal review and public questioning resulting in recommendations by a monitoring body of independent experts called the U.N. Human Rights Committee. The last time the United States was reviewed before the Committee was during the Obama Administration in 2014.  

In January of 2018, the Trump Administration agreed to receive a list of questions from the Human Rights Committee prior to drafting the U.S. government periodic report. Last April, the Human Rights Committee issued a 6-page list of questions covering many human rights violations including: Trump’s anti-immigrant policies (the cruel family separation policy, deaths of migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Muslim ban), voter suppression, reproductive health issues, violations of Indigenous rights, LGBTQ rights, and more. The list was informed by submissions made by more than 50 civil society organizations and Indigenous Peoples’ representative institutions. 

Last month, more than 53 groups sent a letter to the U.S. State Department calling on the Trump Administration to begin drafting the U.S. government report and submitting it by April 2, 2020, which is the deadline imposed by the Human Rights Committee. The letter urged the Trump Administration to conduct meaningful consultation with civil society groups and incorporate information on measures and efforts to comply with the ICCPR from state, local and tribal governments.    

So far, the Trump Administration’s record of respecting human rights and engaging with human rights bodies has been abysmal, and the ICCPR periodic report may not see the light of day during this administration. Why, then, does it matter to continue pushing for the report to be submitted, and what will happen if the report is not submitted by April 2020? 

First and foremost, we have a moral responsibility to continue to hold this administration accountable both domestically and internationally. Secondly, when the U.S. violates human rights and ignores its international law obligations it encourages other countries to follow suit. Third, when the federal government decides not to submit human rights reports, it prevents state, local and tribal governments from reporting on their own efforts to comply with their human rights obligations, which impacts millions of people in the United States. Fourth, absent a U.S. government report, the Human Rights Committee may schedule a formal review without United States participation, which would be unprecedented for a Western democracy. Finally, Congress is taking note and this administration’s continuing violations of international human rights obligations will be the subject of oversight hearings—hopefully with consequences. Last month the House voted to block funding to the State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” which aims to redefine universal human rights by invoking “natural law” to undermine protections to women, LGBTQ people and other vulnerable populations.   

The human rights movement in the United States cannot back down nor be discouraged or intimidated by the Trump Administration’s determination to weaken global and regional human rights systems. We must double our efforts to defend human rights and hold the Trump Administration accountable at all levels. The ICCPR is just one more avenue of accountability that we must pursue. Join us in calling on the Trump administration to fulfill its human rights obligations that include submitting comprehensive periodic reports on compliance with ratified international human rights treaties. Our basic human rights are non-negotiable and the Trump administration must be held accountable for violating them at home and abroad. 

In solidarity,

Jamil Dakwar and Elica Vafaie
ICCPR Task Force Co-Chairs


ICCPR Task Force Co-Chair Jamil Dakwar (ACLU), with Jennifer Prestholdt,
Lisa Borden & Carrie Brasser (The Advocates for Human Rights), 
Professor Elizabeth Brundige & Emily Armbruster (Cornell Law School, Gender Justice Clinic),
and UPR Task Force Co-Chair Joshua Cooper (University of Hawaii) - 
briefing the Human Rights Committee, Geneva 2018.

Read the letter to the State Department here.