Remarks at the United States’ Third Universal Periodic Review

Robert A. Destro, Assistant Secretary and U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan IssuesBureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

As Prepared

Good afternoon, Madame President.  I thank the President of this Council; the many states that participated constructively in the Working Group for our UPR; and Germany, the Bahamas, and Pakistan as members of our Troika.

We also thank the Secretariat staff and, in particular, our own civil society organizations whose hard work has made a significant contribution to our review.

Our report represents not just the work of the Department of State, but also the Departments of Interior, Justice, Homeland Security, Labor, Housing & Urban Development, Health & Human Services, Education, Defense, and others.

As you will see throughout our presentation, our system of government frequently prioritizes decision-making at state, tribal, territorial, and local levels.  This distribution of authority reflects the insight of our Founders that public servants who are closest to the populations they serve, best represent their needs, concerns, and interests.  This means that our state, local, tribal, and territorial laws vary, and reflect local needs and priorities.  We welcome that variance as a natural and powerful aspect of our democracy.

We are proud to participate on behalf of the United States today.  Our presence in this process demonstrates our nation’s commitment to human rights.  We appear not only to explain how our domestic policies and practices promote and protect the human rights of our own people, but also to advance the universal human rights that this body is intended to elevate.

Promoting human rights is a U.S. foreign policy priority that furthers our national interests of stability and democracy.  The United States is committed to using its voice and its position on the world stage to draw attention to violations and abuses of human rights, no matter where or when they occur.  We are committed to advancing human rights worldwide, as well as accountability for those who abuse those rights.

We are aware of challenges facing our country and the world at large.  We act to meet these challenges armed with the values and principles contained in the founding documents that have shaped our nation, as well as our commitment to the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the United States, our identity is fundamentally linked to the foundational freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution, including especially freedom of religion or belief, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, and the freedom to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Americans are committed to the proposition that we are “endowed by our Creator” with certain unalienable rights.  It follows from these principles that the legitimacy of any government rests on the consent of its people, freely given in open and fair elections.  As a result, we do not hesitate to question our government’s actions.  We actively form civil society organizations to advocate for specific causes.  We participate actively and freely in our government, and insist that our local, state, and federal governments answer to the people – and not the other way around.

Our commitment to transparency and a free press, and our insistence on impartial justice, allow the world to witness our struggles and openly engage in our efforts to find solutions.  The United States has a long history of public debates, demonstrations, and activism that led to – and which will continue to foster – landmark improvements in human rights law and policy.

The aspiration to form the “more perfect union” referenced in the Preamble to our Constitution is real.  The United States is firmly committed to finding meaningful remedies that address claims of injustice in our society.  The demonstrations over the tragedy of George Floyd’s death this year have shown the world that Americans understand that they have the inherent right to raise their voices, individually and collectively, to demand that their government address their grievances.

And by adhering to our democratic principles, Americans are pursuing accountability for Mr. Floyd’s death through the criminal and civil justice systems, while also debating and discussing the claims of systemic injustice at the heart of our current discourse.

I would now briefly like to address two topics that arose during our review of recommendations from and engagement with U.S. civil society, which we view as an essential part of this process.

Regarding the issue of privacy:  The United States carefully addresses privacy concerns arising at the federal level in accordance with the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws, all of which are consistent with applicable international obligations.  We recognize that all persons have legitimate privacy interests in the handling of their personal information.

We address privacy and digital freedom issues raised by the conduct of non-state actors, such as Google and Facebook, through the U.S. legal and regulatory systems, and via private litigation.  Some states have enacted or are considering their own privacy laws as well.

With regard to freedom of religion or belief for all:  In the United States, freedom of religion or belief is guaranteed by our Constitution’s ban on religious test for public office and the First Amendment and a variety of other federal and state laws.  Read together, all of these provisions demonstrate that the United States is, as a nation, fully committed to advancing this freedom.  We also vigorously enforce federal hate-crimes laws to protect members of religious groups and houses of worship from private threats and violence.  The federal government has protected, and continues to protect, the right of Americans to determine and practice their religion or belief.

I thank you again for the opportunity to participate in this important process.  The United States is proud of its own human rights record and of the role our nation has played in defending and advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world.  We support the UPR process as an opportunity to reflect upon and listen to your suggestions on how we can improve our own human rights record.

We ask all member states to be equally open to both the process and to the suggestions we propose to them.  We sincerely hope that the UPR process will encourage a strong reaffirmation of the commitments that governments have made to protect the human rights and freedoms that are our common birthright.

Thank you for your time and attention.  It’s now my honor to turn our attention to a video by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Alexander Maugeri.

More from: Robert A. Destro, Assistant Secretary and U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan IssuesBureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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GAO is making the following recommendations: HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain. HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic. HHS and FEMA—working with relevant stakeholders—should devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) objected to GAO’s initial draft recommendations. GAO made revisions based on their comments. GAO maintains that implementation of its modified recommendations is both warranted and prudent. These actions could contribute to ensuring a more effective response by helping to mitigate challenges with the stability of the medical supply chain and the ability of nonfederal partners to track, plan, and budget for ongoing medical supply needs. Vaccines and Therapeutics Multiple federal agencies continue to support the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19. These efforts are aimed at accelerating the traditional timeline to create a vaccine (see figure). Traditional Timeline for Development and Creation of a Vaccine Note: See figure 5 in the report. As these efforts proceed, clarity on the federal government’s plans for distributing and administering vaccine, as well as timely, clear, and consistent communication to stakeholders and the public about those plans, is essential. DOD is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of a vaccine. In September 2020, HHS indicated that it will soon send a report to Congress outlining a distribution plan, but did not provide a specific date for doing so. GAO recommends that HHS, with support from DOD, establish a time frame for documenting and sharing a national plan for distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccine, and in developing such a plan ensure that it is consistent with best practices for project planning and scheduling and outlines an approach for how efforts will be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities. DOD partially concurred with the recommendation, clarifying that it is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of vaccine. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but noted factors that complicate the publication of a plan. GAO maintains that a time frame is necessary so all relevant stakeholders will be best positioned to begin their planning.On September 16, 2020, HHS and DOD released two documents outlining a strategy for any COVID-19 vaccine. GAO will evaluate these documents and report on them in future work.GAO will also continue to conduct related work, including examining federal efforts to accelerate the development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. COVID-19 Data Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among racial and ethnic minority groups, but GAO identified gaps in these data. To help address these gaps, on July 22, 2020, CDC released a COVID-19 Response Health Equity Strategy. However, the strategy does not assess whether having the authority to require states and jurisdictions to report race and ethnicity information is necessary to ensure CDC can collect such data. CDC’s strategy also does not specify how it will involve key stakeholders, such as health care providers, laboratories, and state and jurisdictional health departments. GAO recommends that CDC (1) determine whether having the authority to require the reporting of race and ethnicity information for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is necessary for ensuring more complete data, and if so, seek such authority from Congress; (2) involve key stakeholders to help ensure the complete and consistent collection of demographic data; and (3) take steps to help ensure its ability to comprehensively assess the long-term health outcomes of persons with COVID-19, including by race and ethnicity. HHS agreed with the recommendations. In addition, HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes do not capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began requiring nursing homes to report COVID-19 data to CDC by May 17, 2020, starting with information as of May 8, 2020, but made reporting prior to May 8, 2020 optional. By not requiring nursing homes to submit data from the first 4 months of 2020, HHS is limiting the usefulness of the data in helping to understand the effects of COVID-19 in nursing homes. GAO recommends that HHS, in consultation with CMS and CDC, develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020. HHS partially agreed with this recommendation by noting the value of having complete data, but expressed concern about the burden of collecting it. GAO maintains the importance of collecting these data to inform the government’s continued response and recovery, and HHS could ease the burden by incorporating data previously reported to CDC or to state or local public health offices. Economic Impact Payments The Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued economic impact payments (EIP) to all eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; however, not everyone eligible was able to be initially identified. To help ensure all eligible recipients received their payments in a more timely manner, IRS took several actions to address challenges GAO reported on in June, including a policy change—reopening the Non-Filers tool registration period for federal benefit recipients and extending it through September 30—that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, Treasury and IRS lack updated information on how many eligible recipients have yet to receive these funds. The lack of such information could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of individuals at risk of missing their payment. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, (1) update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP to help target outreach and communications efforts and (2) make estimates of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP, and other relevant information, available to outreach partners to raise awareness about how and when to file for EIP. Treasury and IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations and described actions they are taking in concert with the recommendations to notify around 9 million individuals who may be eligible for an EIP. Coronavirus Relief Fund The Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) is the largest program established in the four COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid to states, the District of Columbia, localities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories. Audits of entities that receive federal funds, including CRF payments, are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds. Auditors that conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) updates and issues annually in coordination with federal agencies. OMB issued the 2020 Compliance Supplement in August 2020, but the Compliance Supplement specified that OMB is still working with federal agencies to identify the needs for additional guidance for auditing new COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, as well as existing programs with compliance requirement changes. According to OMB, an addendum on COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, will be issued in the fall of 2020. Further delays in issuing this guidance could adversely affect auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue the addendum to the 2020 Compliance Supplement as soon as possible to provide the necessary audit guidance, as many single audit efforts are underway. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. Guidance for K-12 Schools State and local school district officials tasked with reassessing their operating status and ensuring their school buildings are safe are generally relying on guidance and recommendations from federal, state, and local public health and education officials. However, portions of CDC’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools are inconsistent, and some federal guidance appears misaligned with CDC’s risk-based approach on school operating status. Based on GAO’s review, Education has updated the information and CDC has begun to do so. GAO recommends that CDC ensure that, as it makes updates to its guidance related to schools’ operating status, the guidance is cogent, clear, and internally consistent. HHS agreed with the recommendation. Tracking Contract Obligations Federal agencies are tracking contract actions and associated obligations in response to COVID-19 using a National Interest Action (NIA) code in the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. The COVID-19 NIA code was established in March 2020 and was recently extended until March 31, 2021, while a draft of this report recommending that DHS and DOD extend the code beyond September 30, 2020, was with the agencies for comment. GAO has identified inconsistencies in establishing and closing these codes following previous emergencies, and has continued concerns with the criteria that DHS and DOD rely on to determine whether to extend or close a code and whether the code meets long-term needs. GAO recommends that DHS and DOD make updates to the 2019 NIA Code Memorandum of Agreement so as to enhance visibility for federal agencies, the public, and Congress on contract actions and associated obligations related to disaster events, and to ensure the criteria for extending or closing the NIA code reflect government-wide needs for tracking contract actions in longer-term emergencies, such as a pandemic. DHS and DOD did not agree, but GAO maintains implementation of its recommendation is essential. Address Cybersecurity Weaknesses Since March 2020, malicious cyber actors have exploited COVID-19 to target organizations that make up the health care and public health critical infrastructure sector, including government entities, such as HHS. GAO has identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies, including CMS, CDC, and FDA, over the last 6 years, such as weaknesses in key safeguards to limit, prevent, and detect inappropriate access to computer resources. Additionally, GAO’s March 2019 high-risk update identified cybersecurity and safeguarding the systems supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as health care, as high-risk areas. As of July 2020, CMS, FDA, and CDC had made significant progress by implementing 350 (about 81 percent) of the 434 recommendations GAO issued in previous reports to address these weaknesses. Based on the imminent cybersecurity threats, GAO recommends that HHS expedite implementation of GAO’s prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies. HHS agreed with the recommendation. As of September 10, 2020, the U.S. had over 6.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and over 177,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of September 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of July 31, 2020, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.6 trillion and expended $1.5 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds as reported by federal agencies on USAspending.gov. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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