printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Achieving Universal Rights Through Multilateral Diplomacy

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Salzburg Global Seminar Board Weekend
Salzburg, Austria
June 24, 2011


Thank you for that introduction. Before I begin, I want to express my appreciation and thanks to the Salzburg Global Seminar for the privilege of speaking to your 2011 Board Weekend.

Each year, the Salzburg Global Seminar brings together your distinguished board of directors to deliberate some of the most pressing issues of the day, to address contemporary challenges and phenomena that will affect us all for generations to come. This year’s theme, focused on the universality of rights and the Arab Spring, clearly fits the bill. Without knowing what the second half of 2011 will bring, I will venture to say that this year will be one for the history books.

The end state of the Arab Spring is not yet in sight, and I am humbled by your request to comment on unpredictable and complex social transformations like the ones taking place. But I believe there are several important conclusions we already can draw from the Arab Spring, conclusions that bear on the question of the universality of fundamental human rights and on the means of realizing those rights.

It was 21 years ago that I first served as a rapporteur at the Salzburg seminar, for a session on the external impact of what eventually would become the European Union. Then, as now, I was focused on multilateral mechanisms. My current position at the U.S. State Department as Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs means I am responsible for U.S. engagement across the United Nations system as well as with other multilateral institutions. Under President Obama’s leadership, the United States has sought to strengthen the United Nations and other aspects of the international architecture to better respond to the transnational challenges of our changing world.

We have pursued this course because we recognize that in a world where threats do not stop at a country’s borders, and more and more pressing challenges are shared among the community of nations, multilateral bodies provide the means of cooperation and partnership; they are where countries can find common solutions to complex problems; they offer fora through which the international community can set global norms and standards, and help states achieve them; and they enable us to rally global responses to crises, whether arising from natural or man-made disasters or conflict. So I approach this question from that multilateral perspective as well.

I thus will divide my remarks tonight roughly into two parts. First, I want to walk through the various critiques of the universality of human rights that have emerged through the years, and discuss why this year’s events in the Arab world provide further refutation of these critiques. In many ways, I would argue, the Arab Spring should put to rest many of the questions about the universality of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Second, I hope to show that given the universal nature of human rights and the nature of the international system in the twenty-first century, multilateral diplomacy serves as one of the most important means of pursuing the achievement of human rights for all humanity. In this, I will draw upon several of the situations the United States has faced over the past two-plus years as the Obama Administration has sought to utilize various parts of the multilateral system to pursue universal values and universal rights.

In assessing the consequences of what has been called the Arab Spring, it is important to place it in a historical perspective, as the latest in a centuries-long series of struggles for basic human dignity. Struggles in which repressed peoples have sought those most fundamental and lofty goals. Liberty. Freedom. Justice. Long before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, anti-slavery advocates sought to ban the treatment of certain persons as property.

Long before the United Nations arose from the ashes of the Second World War, with a founding membership that excluded most of what is now termed the developing world, anti-colonial activists demanded the right to chart their own destinies, free of European oversight. And long before Eleanor Roosevelt represented the United States at the Human Rights Commission, women around the world campaigned to win equal rights for half the human population.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was far from the beginning of the human rights movement. Nor did its preambular reference to the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” mark the first enunciation of the principle that such rights were universally held by all, solely by virtue of their humanity.

And its adoption was no panacea to cure the world’s ills. The Universal Declaration, for all its incredible aspirations, all its sweeping pronouncements of the universality of rights, was written at a time when the world’s embodiment of those rights left much to be desired, even more than today. The UDHR stated that “[e]veryone has the right to take part in the government of his country” – but in 1948, most of Africa remained part of European colonial empires.

Eastern Europe was on the cusp of falling behind the Iron Curtain, despite the UDHR’s assertion that “[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections.” And although the Declaration pronounced that “[a]ll are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law,” it would be nearly a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court would prohibit racial segregation in American schools, and even France, with its dedication to égalité, had only recently begun to guarantee women’s suffrage.

Yet these ongoing injustices were not insurmountable obstacles; instead, they were themselves powerful calls for achievement of the universal human rights set out in the UDHR. They remain so today.

Just as the drafting of the Universal Declaration did not mark the beginning of the human rights movement, its adoption did not herald the human rights movement’s natural end. At best, we could say that promulgating the UDHR marked the end of the beginning. Having enunciated fundamental human rights held by all mankind, the attention of the world now turned to ensuring the protection and promotion of those rights, a struggle that remains ongoing today.

Yet in the decades that followed the adoption of the Universal Declaration, critiques of its universality abounded, fueled in large part by that juxtaposition of unflinching pronouncements. On the one hand, the UDHR’s clear and universally-adopted language insisting that all human beings held certain rights solely by virtue of their humanity; on the other hand, the daily affronts to those rights, to basic human dignity, carried out in every country in the world. And forgetting – or ignoring – the aspirational nature of the Universal Declaration, critics from all corners argued that for one reason or another, certain of the rights set forth were not really applicable in their contexts.

Cultural relativists argued that in some parts of the world, rules or practices embraced by a local “culture” normatively trumped respect for human rights. Advocates of this view posited that “culture” was somehow immutable, permanent, easily divined, and divorced from dynamics of political power, rather than an invented and dynamic amalgam of historical practices, frequently interpreted by elites with an eye toward maintaining or enhancing a status quo distribution of political and economic power.

Some criticized what they saw as the Eurocentric or Western pedigree of the very notion of inalienable individual rights – ignoring not only the general prominence of the concept of human dignity in every world religion, but also the influential roles played in drafting and negotiating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by delegates from countries beyond the north Atlantic, including India, China, Cuba, Lebanon, Panama, and Chile.

Still others heralded anew the primacy of the state, arguing that state sovereignty properly shielded certain domestic matters from international scrutiny. Thus it was said that no matter how a government had come to power, or how weak or nonexistent democratic processes were, that government’s actions were cloaked in the purported legitimacy of sovereignty.

Other criticisms primarily originated not from the developing world, but instead from the global North. In the years following the September 11 terrorist attacks, too many voices from my country and others dismissed the importance of human rights in foreign policy. They argued that a narrow conception of “national security” – usually tied to the use of military force – trumped all other considerations, and they did not ascribe to the view that, as the Universal Declaration states in its Preamble, “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Others adopted a postmodern perspective, believing that the absence of true objectivity prevented anything like universal principles or values, and thus universal rights.

Finally, a recent critique of universalism bases itself on the perception that twenty-first century emerging powers do not themselves display much respect for human rights. At the very least, this line of thinking goes, these countries are far less inclined to promote various types of interventions by the international community to advance human rights, holding a more restrictive view of state sovereignty than do Americans or Europeans. And they call for international responsibility for advancing certain social and economic issues where Americans and Europeans might hesitate. If these fundamental differences cannot be squared between the global leaders of today and the new centers of influence in the century to come, detractors ask, how can we speak of human rights as universal?

For the better part of the past century, each these critiques of universalism have been deployed in full force across the Arab world. But the advocates of these views have not been the ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of their restrictions on freedom; rather, it has been the leaders of these countries who have made various claims as to why the Arab world is different, and why universal values were not relevant.

For decades, when pressed on their human rights situation or their democratic deficit, governments in these countries responded by citing cultural differences that somehow meant Arabs did not aspire to freedom, dignity, or opportunity, or that women’s equality was a foreign concept. They criticized “Western interventions” in what they deemed sovereign matters, blamed colonial legacies, or tried to redirect anger against Israel. And they claimed that terrorist or other security threats demanded that rights be restricted to protect public order.

But looking at the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, one senses that the salient question now is how we could not speak of human rights as universal. If the political history of the Arab world has been one that reinforced the critiques of universalism, the Arab Spring should serve as an outright rejection of that history, and of the arguments that Arabs somehow did not desire the very same freedoms that one enjoys in free countries the world over. So I would submit to you that the Arab Spring does not raise the question of whether human rights are universal; rather, it answers that question, and does so with a resounding “yes.”

And if we can assess the recent uprisings in the Arab world as embracing the universalism of human rights, what conclusions can we draw about the actions of the international community in support of those demands? Even if the revolutions currently underway result in the fundamental transformation of each country touched by the Arab Spring, we will not find ourselves witnesses to an immediate blossoming of perfect and complete respect for human rights across the Arab world.

The rest of the world, therefore, has a role to play in assisting these men and women to actualize the demands they have made, and to realize their aspirations. As President Obama said to the UN General Assembly last year, “part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.”

An initial assessment of the global response should emphasize the central role that multilateral bodies have played in facilitating the global response. For the most part, countries have sought to coordinate their responses to these revolutions, to better support the efforts to finally secure freedom in North Africa and the Middle East. In so doing, they have largely focused efforts on the UN political fora, and for countries in the immediate region, on responding through regional organizations. Even important differences between global leaders has not hamstrung the multilateralization of the international response; in fact, these multilateral bodies have provided important venues for bridging those differences where possible.

As is perhaps inevitable, the lion’s share of media and public attention has been focused on the Security Council diplomacy that led to Resolutions 1970 and 1973, which imposed global sanctions on the Qadhafi regime, referred its actions to the International Criminal Court, and subsequently authorized the use of force by states to protect civilians from Qadhafi’s armed aggression against his own people. As President Obama described the U.S. approach to Libya, we are seeking to “mobilize the international community for collective action,” aiming toward a situation in which “the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”

But the international response to the Arab Spring has not been limited to imposing sanctions or authorizing the use of force in the Security Council. We have seen the international community engaged across the United Nations system. And as we consider the question of universal values and the Arab Spring, the ongoing actions of the Human Rights Council in cementing global support for the rights-based goals of the Arab Spring revolutions has highlighted the positive role that body can play in helping achieve human rights.

Although I have used the term “Arab Spring,” tonight – because the United States respects the dynamism of the various citizens’ movements afoot in these countries and the expectation of long-term positive change – the United States also recognizes that each country in the region brings its own history and set of challenges to the table.

So in the Human Rights Council, the United States and our partners have sought appropriate international action that takes into account the unique circumstances and human rights challenges faced by each country.

In Libya, the Human Rights Council called a special session, at which it created a commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations by the Qadhafi regime and recommended that the UN General Assembly suspend Libya’s Council membership. The rapid concrete steps taken by the Human Rights Council helped catalyze consensus action at the Security Council the following day.

In Tunisia, the United States worked with the interim government to adopt a resolution that encouraged ongoing UN assistance to the transition process while calling upon the government to implement recommendations made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Faced with ongoing attacks on civilians by Syrian government forces, the United States and our partners derailed Syria’s candidacy to join the Human Rights Council. Called to a special session, the Council condemned the Syrian government’s lethal violence against peaceful protestors and authorized a fact finding mission to investigate human rights violations with a view to ensuring accountability.

And at the most recent Council session, we worked to issue a joint statement by 74 countries on the human rights violations in Yemen, and ensured that the Council will take further action on Yemen at the next session of the HRC.

Frankly, these multiple urgent special sessions resulting in timely action on pressing human rights situations was not always the hallmark of the Human Rights Council. As you might recall, when the Obama Administration took the decision in 2009 to seek a seat on the Council, it was not without some controversy. The previous Administration had kept the Council at arm’s length since its creation four years prior. But we recognized that if the United States wanted the Human Rights Council to live up to its important mandate, to protect and promote human rights of all mankind, we could not leave it to be dominated by human rights abusers.

So after winning a seat in 2009, the United States has become one of the most active delegations on the Human Rights Council. And we and our partners have achieved much in the way of reform by working session by session, resolution by resolution, to change the way the Council operates and achieve results by pushing it to address some of the world’s most critical human rights situations. Indeed, the Human Rights Council is so far the only UN political body that has addressed the pressing human rights situations in Syria and Yemen.

Although we are disappointed that the Council continues an unfair and imbalanced bias against Israel, the Human Rights Council has become a stronger institution with the United States as a member rather than on the sidelines. And that is why we have announced that the United States will run for reelection when our term expires in 2012.

In large part, the Human Rights Council has been able to play the leading role that it has in the international response to the Arab Spring because of its evolution over the past two years. In reviewing the victories the United States and our partners from all corners of the globe have had during our time on the Council, one can identify not only the gradual strengthening of the Council’s role in responding to pressing human rights situations; in addition, one can see further refutation of the critiques of universality I mentioned earlier.

In the remarkable agenda the Council has pursued during that time, one can see newfound attention toward action-oriented approaches that help ensure human rights are equally respected and protected for all persons. And given how many different countries have taken on leadership roles in the Human Rights Council over the past two years, it is clear that although differences may remain, the Council has been an important mechanism for bringing together a diversity of nations to pursue a common goal of universal human rights.

So to promote the freedom of assembly and association, we created a new international mechanism to monitor crackdowns on civil society groups and hold governments accountable for respecting this core human right. We did so with a broad coalition of partners from the developed and developing world, including the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Lithuania, the Maldives, Mexico, and Nigeria, all of which informed the resolution drawing upon their own various histories and backgrounds.

Similarly, in establishing a group of experts to combat around the world discrimination against women, we supported a diverse group of countries led by Mexico and Colombia to cement in the multilateral arena that women’s rights are human rights.

Through engagement, we also bridged a chasm with the Organization of the Islamic Conference that had been festering for years, on the issue of religious intolerance and what the OIC called “defamation of religion.” Moving the debate away from its unhelpful attempts to criminalize speech and potentially persecute minorities in the name of protecting religion, we achieved a consensus outcome that brought together all sides behind the shared goal of combating religious intolerance. We found common ground across a broad spectrum of states for an action-oriented approach centered on the role of freedom of speech in combating religious intolerance and discrimination.

The Obama Administration also has taken steps to embrace the link between political and civil rights and economic, social, and cultural rights. Instead of prioritizing one purported category over the other, we recognize the need to embrace a broad concept of human rights. So in our actions, we have worked constructively with like-minded delegations and joined consensus on a number of fair and well-reasoned resolutions addressing economic, social, and cultural rights at the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, including, for the first time ever joining consensus on a resolution addressing the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

And just this month, we worked with South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, the EU, and others to win adoption by the Human Rights Council of the first ever UN resolution on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. South Africa’s leadership on this initiative – despite criticism by some other African delegations – deserves special praise. By commissioning the first-ever UN report on the challenges LGBT persons face, we expect that this resolution will be the start of a broader international discussion on how to best promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons around the world.

In each of these victories, we have worked closely alongside delegations from a diverse group of countries. Sometimes our closest collaborators have been our traditional European allies; other times, we have broken new ground by cutting across longstanding divides and bloc politics to forge new partnerships. In each case, we have generally been able to build strong coalitions among the 47 countries represented on the Human Rights Council to further expand international protection of fundamental – and universal – human rights.

And our efforts in Geneva, and those of our diverse partners, are not simply in pursuit of pieces of paper. We have sought action-oriented outcomes that harness the many tools that the international system has to offer. We have pushed hard to defend existing special rapporteurs and independent experts who are making a difference by shining a spotlight on abuses around the world. We have revolutionized the use of commissions of inquiry, to create a foundation for justice and accountability for human rights violations.

So as we look at the international response to the Arab Spring, we do not see debates about whether the fundamental rights demanded by the citizens of Tunisia or Libya or Egypt or Syria or Yemen are somehow Western impositions. We don’t hear anyone claiming that some aspect of these cultures justifies the denial of those human rights. Instead, these peoples in fact see – in various forums, and yes, with varying degrees of strength – that the global community is standing with the men and women who are risking their lives to seize the rights that ought to have been theirs from birth.

We have achieved much progress in our struggle to realize the pledges the international community made when we adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more than sixty years ago. But the struggle continues, and so long as it does, the world’s nations – with the United States among the forefront – will continue to work through the United Nations system to achieve the UDHR’s vision of human rights universally enjoyed.

So I hope that my remarks this evening will help launch a scintillating and productive conversation over the course of this weekend, and I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.