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Diplomacy in Action

The U.S. and the United Nations Human Rights Council: Principled Engagement

Suzanne Nossel
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Heritage Foundation
Washington, DC
May 24, 2011


Thanks so much for convening this discussion. It is valuable to have the chance to have dialogue with some of the most thoughtful interlocutors on this issue here in town and from Geneva, so I really appreciate the opportunity.

We joined the Human Rights Council and took our seats for the first time in September of 2009, and we did so with the stated goal of trying to make the Council more legitimate and more credible. We were very clear-eyed on what the limitations and flaws of the Council were, and to some extent still are, and I will run through what we saw as the principle issues. I would venture that there is a fair amount of agreement as far as what the problems are. The first is a persistent, one-sided, unbalanced, and almost obsessive focus on Israel. As demonstrated in a pattern of resolutions that run session after session singling out Israel, it is a stand-alone agenda item that is part of the Council’s official agenda dedicated to Israel, whereas every other country under the UN system is dealt with under a common item. So this is not new to the Council; the UN Human Rights System going back decades has reflected this outsized focus on Israel, but it has certainly been near the top of our list of concerns going in.

The second issue that I highlight is membership, which is again not an issue new to the council. The Council was created in 2006 as a successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights. The effort at the time was to try to overcome some of the limitations of the Commission, but the Council itself reflects a number of them as well. In terms of membership, the Council has always had within its ranks member states whose own human rights records do not always reflect the kind of respect for human rights that we would like to see, and that flaw remained when we joined the Council.

And then finally, there has been a failure to come to grips with a range of serious country situations worldwide. At the time we joined the Council, the Council had recently renewed the mandate for the Sudan mechanism by just one vote, so nearly half the Council was ready to abolish that mechanism. It had a special session looking at Sri Lanka at a time when the government was perpetrating mass abuses that now have been more fully documented, but at the time, they passed a very soft resolution in places praising the government of Sri Lanka at a time when it deserved condemnation. Then, right before we joined, the Council took no action in response to the crackdown after the Iranian election. So there has been this persistent failure to come to grips with country situations in a credible way.

It is important to understand that these flaws were manifested in the council, but they reflect the viewpoints of the countries represented there, and the representation of the Council reflects the makeup of the world. If you look at the Freedom House Index of which countries are considered “free," “partially free,” and “not free,” the makeup of the council is very much a parallel of that, of the world at large. So when you see these anti-Israel tendencies, the tendency is to look the other way at serious abuses that manifested in Geneva at the Human Rights Council, but those positions originate in capitals worldwide, so you cannot separate the two.

When we joined the Council, we focused on four different goals. The first I would highlight is deepening the Council’s engagement in country situations. The second is taking concrete steps to drive key thematic human rights priorities. The third is defending core principles and values, and the fourth is setting a standard for principled engagement and being an example to other countries. And I will talk briefly about what we have done in each area before turning it over to my colleagues.

On country situations, in joining the Council, we faced an ingrained attitude among many members that the Council should not be in the business of looking at individual country situations or passing individual resolutions. There is an attitude among some member states that this is “naming and shaming” and that the Council should not be pointing fingers and should only work cooperatively on broad thematic issues.

We took the opposite view. In our view, the Council will be, and is rightfully measured, on its ability to respond to the gravest human rights abuses, and those take place inside countries. So we were very committed to reversing the tendency that was pronounced at the Council of reducing country mandates of taking on serious situations.

We started somewhat modestly, and the first of the two resolutions we worked on focused on the massacre in Guinea, and the second was on the unrest and violence in Kyrgyzstan last spring. In both cases, we were able to work with transitional forces in the countries in question and get them to recognize the importance of facing up to the abuses and pursuing accountability of the Council. Both of those resolutions passed by consensus, and that set a foundation that has enabled us to take on even more serious and more controversial situations.

We initiated the special session to look at the crisis in Cote-D’Ivoire in December that resulted in a very strong condemnatory resolution on the Gbagbo regime. We at the end of February were instrumental in the Council’s special session on Libya, which resulted in a condemnation of the Gaddafi government and the dispatch of a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuses there. That resolution passed by consensus of the Human Rights Council on a Friday, the following day. Libya was taken up by UN Security Council, and there was an unprecedented resolution condemning of the Gaddafi government and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. It is hard to ignore the consensus coming out of Geneva, out of this historically fractious body; the fact that that body was able to come together set the stage for the action that was taken in New York the following day.

We then, during the March situation, took on a country that I know all of us for a long time felt needed to be addressed, which is Iran, and we were able to create the Council’s first new special rapporteur to focus on abuses in Iran. This is a priority that Iranian human rights defenders both in the country and abroad, including Nobel Laureate Sharida Boudi, had really emphasized and pressed the importance of. We got a very strong majority in favor of that resolution. Only seven countries sided with the Iranians to vote against this resolution, despite a very active lobbying campaign that the Tehran regime mounted to try and thwart this effort. So it was a very powerful message to Tehran.

Just last month, we initiated a special session on Syria, and in a timely way, in response to mounting abuses in Dara, got the Council to step forward to condemn those abuses to dispatch a fact-finding mission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to look at the situation in Syria. So we have really stepped up the pace of the Council’s ability to react to serious country situations; particularly, I would highlight those three: Libya, Iran, and Syria, in a three-month period. So that is a sea change for the council, and these resolutions have all resulted in concrete, ongoing action, be it in the form of a special rapporteur to look at the situation year-round and shine a spotlight, or commissions of inquiry to investigate abuses and create foundations for accountability.

We are also now deepening our work through follow-up. We have done a follow-up resolution on Guinea, we will be doing one of Kyrgyzstan, and we are working closely with the individuals who are leading these commissions of inquiry to make sure they have the support and resources they need to carry out their critical work.

On thematic priorities, we initiated the first-ever resolution on freedom of assembly and association, which is an issue of high priority to us in response to the global crackdown on civil society and non-governmental organizations and the increasing number of countries that have passed restrictive legislation shrinking the space for civil society, forcing registration requirements, and targeting human rights defenders.

We have established at the Council a new special rapporteur who is specifically dedicated to investigating and reporting on these abuses. We did so by building a cross-regional coalition, so we had Nigeria, Indonesia, Mexico, and others working with us on this resolution. We pointed out to them that these freedoms of assembly and association are enshrined in their own constitutions, and so they have very strong domestic grounding in terms of defending these principles, and they were willing to do so in the international community and join forces with us. By building up such a strong coalition, we were able to thwart countries like China and Cuba that really have no desire to see an independent, high-level, UN-mandated expert investigating the restrictions and constraints they have placed on non-governmental organizations. They nonetheless joined consensus on this resolution. We also established a new, high-level expert working group to investigate laws and practices that discriminate against women.

The third area we focused on is defense of core principles. At the top of our list is our defense of Israel, and Israel’s right to fair treatment at the Human Rights Council. This is the most challenging issue we face. It is not something by any means that is unique to the human rights council, and I know this has been discussed by Hillel and others who have looked at what is happening across the UN System and across the international system. Israel faces a degree of isolation that is heightened, and we certainly see that at the Human Rights Council. We have been very consistent in standing up and calling votes on resolutions that are biased or one-sided or non-constructive. We will do that even if we are the only one voting against; we don’t hesitate.

We reject Israel’s exclusion from the regional groups in the Council. We fought for their inclusion and were able to secure Israel’s membership in one of the important consultative groups in Geneva. We also advocated the appointment of Israel’s first UN Special Procedures Mandate Holder, an expert who is now a member of that committee we have established on laws that discriminate against women. So we have worked to advance Israel’s inclusion.

We have also worked quietly behind the scenes to try to moderate the resolutions that have passed, and we have seen a little bit of progress in that regard. I would say while we still see far too many anti-Israel resolutions, and resolutions that are excessively focused on Israel, our perception is that in terms of the focus of the debate in Geneva, where it used to be heavily focused on Israel, session after session, what we now see is a much wider docket of country situations that are debated and discussed and that are the talk of delegations. While the Israel resolutions are still there and they come up and they are introduced and they are passed, they are no longer the obsessive focus of the diplomatic community in the way that they were.

Another core issue or principal we have focused on heavily is something called “defamation of religion.” This is a resolution that the Islamic Conference has promoted and passed twice a year for the last ten years, and it is a resolution we have always rejected on the basis that it tries to address the problem of insults to religion-- things like the Danish cartoons, the burn the Koran incident, and other inflammatory statements about religion-- through bans on speech, punishment of speech and restrictions on freedom of expression. That is an approach we reject based on our First Amendment and our own national law and also based on international human rights law and its protection of freedom of expression.

We have tackled this issue head on through a two-pronged approach. One side of it was working very hard on outreach to countries around the world who value freedom of expression to say that even though you’ve supported this resolution in the past, we want to point out why it is problematic and why it is so inconsistent with international human rights values. We asked these countries to pull away from the resolution and many of them did, so the margin of victory for this resolution began to narrow.

We also, at the same time, reached out to the Islamic Conference and said that we appreciate some of the underlying feelings of vulnerability that some religious groups have. But we are adamant that the way to address that is not through restrictions and prohibitions on freedom of speech.

Through intensive dialogue in March, I am happy to say that for the first time in ten years the Islamic Conference pulled their resolution. The defamation of religions resolution did not run for the first time, and instead they put forward a consensus resolution that we were able to sign along with the entire European Union, that stressed the kinds of measures that have worked in this country to address religious intolerance: things like education, dialogue, enforcement of civil rights laws and hate crimes laws. So they really changed their track quite dramatically and we were able to put to rest a very divisive and pernicious agenda.

We have also been very aggressive in attacking the issue of membership, which we see as a core matter of principle. The Council, in its founding documents, states that countries that are candidates for membership should be evaluated on the basis of their human rights record, and we have insisted on that. Iran ran for a seat on the Human Rights Council last spring. We were very assertive all over the world, in Geneva and New York and other world capitals, pointing out why Iran’s record was inconsistent with membership. They actually pulled their bid and withdrew from the race rather than face humiliating defeat.

Just last Friday, an election for new membership was held, and we were pleased to see Syria pull their bid about a week before the election in the face of international recognition that their longstanding human rights record, as well as in particular the crackdown over the last couple of months, rendered them unfit for membership. They withdrew in favor of Kuwait, a country whose record is certainly far from perfect but that is a far better choice. Nicaragua’s bid, running against Peru, Chile and Costa Rica was also thwarted. Nicaragua received far fewer votes and won’t have a seat. We will see Peru, Costa Rica, and Chile, three countries that I think we can all recognize as better qualified.

We also took the unprecedented step in late February of suspending Libya’s membership on the Council. The Council, unlike the Commission, has a provision whereby countries’ memberships can be suspended by a vote of the General Assembly. We played a leading role in passing a Geneva resolution calling for that suspension and getting the suspension through in New York.

Another core issue of principle I would highlight is the role of non-governmental organizations, and we have been very outspoken and consistent in Geneva in recognizing and promoting the role of non-governmental organizations and their full participation in the Council.

The last point is the question of setting standards for principled engagement. We recognize that the Council includes countries that are at all stages of development in terms of their own politics domestically and their role on the world stage. We have sought to set a standard that others will hold themselves to. I will give one example: the Council’s periodic review process, which is a process whereby every country in the UN system, whether you’re a Council member or not, undergoes a review of their human rights record every four years.

We underwent that review in November and our decision was to take it very seriously. We undertook consultations across the United States to develop a factual foundation and understand from our own civil society the kinds of issues they wanted to see us raise. We went to Geneva with a very high level interagency delegation for this dialogue. We also made history by opening up the process to civil society and non-governmental organizations. Whereas the formal session in the morning was restricted to governments, and only they were able to take the floor, so we held a kind of shadow session in the afternoon where we had more than 100 non-governmental organizations and civil society associations, both in the room for video link to Washington, and webcast and in chat, participating and interacting with our delegation. They asked even tougher questions than the member states had in the closed morning session.

Our goal was to say to other countries that the most important part of this is opening yourselves up to the scrutiny and dialogue of your own civil society. We are now encouraging other countries to follow suit.

We also have tried to set a standard with our approach to the UPR process for foreign countries in setting forth very clear, principled statements. On other countries’ records, there has been a tendency to soft-pedal or offer praise in the context of the UPR process, when human rights records often deserve at times condemnation or at least serious questions. We’ve been very strong in taking a principled approach to the UPR process and also doing outreach to encourage other countries to do the same, so that when others go through the UPR review, it is a balanced and credible process.

We have also taken the lead in stepping up our engagement and dialogue with emerging powers. What we recognize is that the Council is a key place where countries that are playing a growing role on the world’s stage come to understand and interpret the importance of their human rights obligations and the obligation of other emerging powers in terms of their human rights records and the actions of others.

You have, for example, countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa that are, for the first time, really acting as leaders in responding to the human rights situation in their regions and around the globe. We have initiated sustained dialogue with these countries. We travel to capitals, we sit down with them ahead of HRC sessions, we review all of the agenda items we have, and we hear from them and explain why we are approaching things the way that we do. I think, as a result, we have seen as a result of that some really significant changes in terms of how countries are voting. The size of the majorities we have been able to pull together for some of the country resolutions really reflects, albeit incomplete, still significant migration in a positive direction, particularly among some of these emerging leaders whose influence goes beyond their own borders.

So, we are looking forward to the discussion, but our conclusion here is that we have been able to make progress. It is not complete; it is a long-term process, and we still have plenty in Geneva that we are dissatisfied with. Israel would be at the top of that list, but the progress we have seen is significant; it probably goes beyond what many expected when we first joined. If you look at the list of serious country situations that people put forward, there are some that are unaddressed, but there are some very important ones that the Council is now truly engaged with.

Our view is that by absenting ourselves, by abdicating our position, we would be leaving this debate in the hands of others whose perspectives we don’t agree with, who would not defend those core principles, who would not work to advance those priorities, and who would not put the spotlight on those serious situations. Instead, their actions would nonetheless reverberate around the world and would reflect international opinion and would often be perceived as international consensus. So, in our view, U.S. participation, the role we play, and the influence we have, are essential. Thanks.

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