(As Prepared Remarks)
I’m going to start by highlighting some of the main priorities and achievements at the 20th Session of the Human Rights Council, which I think both underscore the broadening scope and efficacy of the Council, and highlight the instrumental role of United States engagement with a diverse range of countries from all regions of the world to address urgent human rights concerns.
U.S. leadership kept the Council at the forefront of international efforts to promote and protect human rights in Syria, Belarus and Eritrea and led to the passing of historic resolutions on Internet freedom and women’s equal right to nationality.
At this session, the United States worked closely with the European Union in putting forward a new resolution that created a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus.
Although it was an EU-led resolution, the U.S. worked very closely with our EU counterparts both in terms of the substance of the resolution and in terms of the strategy, for which we essentially borrowed the play book for Iran, starting early, weeks before the session, reaching out across all regions to build support, explain the need for the mandate, get feedback, etc.
The Council had taken a first step last year by passing a resolution that called for a report on Belarus, but the continued lack of cooperation by Belarus with HRC mechanisms and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the further degradation of the human rights situation highlighted the need to take more robust action.
Nigeria, Djibouti and Somalia led the Council in the creation of a Special Rapporteur on Eritrea. This independent human rights expert will focus urgent attention on one of the most dire human rights situations in the world.
Eritreans remain victimized by one of the world’s most repressive governments.
Putting on my old FH hat, I’ll note that Eritrea has been among the counties they list as the World’s Most Repressive Societies for 12 years and has received the absolute lowest scores possible for PR and CL for the past 3.
They suffer arbitrary and indefinite detention; inhumane conditions of confinement; torture; restrictions on freedom of speech, movement, and belief; and indefinite forced labor in national service.
The United States co-sponsored this important resolution along with a cross-regional group of supporters.
What’s really critical to note is that this is the first non-cooperative country-mandate created by the Council by consensus. This action speaks to both the increased credibility of the Council, and the international community’s concern over human rights violations in Eritrea.
Prior to the session, within just a few days of the massacre in Houla, the U.S. co-sponsored a Special Session of the HRC on June 1, which issued a very strong statement and called for the COI to conduct a special investigation into the massacre.
At this session, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria provided an oral report including its initial findings from an investigation of the May 25 Houla massacre.
The United States, along with Turkey and Qatar, ran a resolution that maintained the focus on Syria and underscored the need to continue the Commission of Inquiry’s work to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate.
The United States was proud to work closely with the main sponsor, Sweden, and over 80 co-sponsors, and a strong core group of sponsors that included Brazil, Turkey, Nigeria, and Tunisia, to help pass a landmark resolution reaffirming our longstanding commitment to freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, both online and off.
This resolution underscores that all individuals are entitled to the same human rights and fundamental freedoms online as they are offline, and that all governments must protect those rights regardless of the medium. The resolution places a particular emphasis on the right to freedom of expression online.
We fully anticipated that this would be a voted resolution, but as we worked with Sweden on both the text and the establishment of an excellent cross-regional core group, it started to look like a possibility that this might even pass by consensus, which is ultimately what happened.
The Right to Nationality
This resolution, which the United States led with Botswana, Colombia, Mexico, Iraq, Turkey, and Slovakia, aimed to address an important but under-recognized human right, the right to a nationality, with a specific focus on women and children.
This resolution supports the Secretary’s initiative to promote women’s equal right to nationality, which emphasizes that women’s rights are human rights.
The equal right to a nationality for women, including the ability to acquire and retain nationality and confer it on their children, reduces the likelihood that they will become stateless and vulnerable to serious harm. This is the first time that the Human Rights Council has addressed the issue of discriminatory nationality laws targeting women.
In total there were 45 co-sponsors supporting the resolution, with representation from every geographical region and this resolution also passed by consensus.
Now a few words on the defensive side:
While the biased, Israel-specific agenda unfortunately still exists, we are pleased that there were no resolutions tabled under this agenda item during this session, which is one of only a handful of times (HRC 8, 11, 12) this has happened.
However, the HRC President named the members of the Settlements Fact Finding Mission, created in March, at the end of this session. This was not a new action, as the President was required to name members of the mission according to the resolution from the March session and we were pleased it happened during a regular session rather than as a stand alone action. As reflected by our vote against this measure at the March session, the United States strongly opposes the creation of a Fact Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements.
The United States has made clear its belief that this politicized fact finding mission on Israeli settlements does not advance the cause of peace and will not add useful information to the debate over settlements.
What U.S. Engagement has Achieved
As the U.S. comes to the end of its first full 3-year term as an HRC member, I’d like to take a look at the bigger picture of what we managed to achieve.
For those of you who have heard me talk about what U.S. engagement at the HRC has meant you will have heard this before, so bear with me, because I’m going to say it again.
Before the U.S. joined the Council, we in the human rights community used to measure successes at the HRC in terms of how often we were able to avert the worst possible scenario.
Whether we were able to sacrifice a couple of important country mandates to preserve the system of having any country mandates. Whether we would see a few more countries abstain on the defamation of religions resolutions even though the resolutions continued to pass easily. Whether NGOs would be able to get through a 2-minute intervention without being cut off 6 times by Cuba, Egypt, Russia or China.
Now we measure success by the extent to which the Council addresses the most serious human rights issues taking place in the world today.
In 2010, the first year the U.S. sat on the Council and one year after the brutal and bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iran, the Council was only able to muster a joint statement condemning Iran, which included signatories from only 56 countries, only 16 of which were on the Council and the vast majority of which were Western countries.
One year later, with U.S. leadership, the Council passed a resolution establishing a special rapporteur on Iran, the first new country-specific special procedure since the Council was established in 2006.
In fact, since the U.S. has joined the council, a total of 7 new country-specific mandates have been established that we supported, including SRs for Syria, Belarus, and Iran; COI’s for Libya, Syria, Cote d’Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan and Guinea; and an IE for Cote d’Ivoire. There were also mandates we did not support, namely the 3 FFMs on Gaza, the Flotilla incident and the settlements issue in Israel.
In addition, mandates were renewed on Sudan, Somalia, North Korea, Burma, Cambodia and Haiti.
8 Special sessions have been held since the US joined focusing on Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria, with only 1 on Israel.
Compare that to the first years of the Council, when 3 of the first 4 special sessions were held on Israel.
Thematically, new mandates were established to focus on the right to peaceable assembly and on discrimination against women.
The old horrible defamation of religions resolutions were dropped because the U./S., in coalition with like-minded states and civil society organizations, worked with the OIC to find an alternative approach that addressed real human rights violations of religious discrimination and violence without sacrificing critical freedoms of expression and religion.
How has this happened?
I’ll refer back to the set of principles that my current boss, Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer, laid out in her opening speech when the U.S. first took its seat at the HRC in September 2009: these included the principles of universality, dialogue, principle and truth. I wrote about that approach in 2010 in Freedom House’s annual report card on the Human Rights Council as follows:
“Brimmer set the tone for U.S. participation in the Council over the coming year by delivering a strong opening statement that highlighted American commitment to the universality of human rights, as well as an approach that would emphasize constructive dialog with other Council members to address human rights issues. The statement was notable for affirming U.S. intentions to focus on egregious human rights violations, including through country-specific resolutions, and U.S. support for the independence of the special procedures.”
Essentially, what the U.S. has done is that it has engaged in a smart, strategic, multilateralist approach by starting in early on key initiatives it seeks to advance, by building up cross-regional support among both traditional and non-traditional partners, by genuinely engaging with those partners, listening to their concerns and taking them into account, allowing them to feel ownership, all while maintaining strict adherence to core principles.
In doing so, the U.S. has effectively neutralized the paralysis of the old bloc voting according to which countries in the Non-Aligned Movement and the OIC, all voted uniformly according to what a few powerful countries in the organizations wanted.
On every single one of the major initiatives that the U.S. has led or supported, members of the NAM and the OIC have split votes providing crucial support for those initiatives. Countries like the Maldives and Senegal, members of both OIC and NAM voted in favor of the Iran SR. Nigeria was a co-sponsor of the FOA resolution. India voted in favor of the Sri Lanka resolution.
Russia, Cuba and China were completely isolated in voting against the resolutions on Syria from this past regular and special session.
Sri Lanka initiative
I think an excellent example of what the U.S. has been able to achieve is found in the case study of the Sri Lanka resolution at the March HRC session.
Many of you in this room will remember that one of the biggest failures of the Council to date was the shameful resolution that was passed during the special session in May 2009, when the Sri Lankan government essentially hi-jacked the special session and pushed through a resolution that not only did not condemn its actions during the conclusion of the country’s civil war, but praised them and placed all the blame for any abuses on the LTTE.
In the face of growing evidence, including video evidence of egregious government-sanctioned human abuses, the U.S. led an initiative to pass a resolution calling upon the Sri Lankan government to simply implement the recommendations made in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, including the need to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, etc., and for creating an action plan to do so.
It was not the strongest resolution in terms of condemnatory language, but Sri Lanka tried to politicize message, make it West v. small NAM country. We were able to cut through with a simple, strong message on the Human Rights need.
Again, we saw the NAM/OIC voting block completely breaking down. Early on, Pakistan, Egypt, Cuba and others warned us that NAM would prevent resolution. At beginning, Egyptian diplomat in Geneva even pulled one of our officers aside and told us “as a friend” that we should drop the resolution because the NAM reaction would be so strong and unified we would certainly lose.
Sri Lanka engaged in a strong defensive posture. Every non-WEOG HRC member received a cabinet-level visit, the foreign minister spent several days in Geneva before the resolution, and the President was making phone calls directly leading up to the vote. Their main message was that they needed time and space.
However, we were able to deliver a consistent message across the globe that our resolution was reasonable and justified -- including the fact that it gave them another year and did not ask them to do anything outside their domestic process.
As it became clear we were getting support, the Sri Lankan message became increasingly shrill. While their message started off sounding reasonable, by the end their messaging became more extreme and even their allies became uncomfortable supporting them.
Sri Lanka clearly crossed the line in intimidating activists, including thugs they sent to Geneva and publishing the names of activists in Colombo papers as “traitors.” One activists was beaten up in the streets of Geneva after meeting with the EU. HRC President even called them out. Although, interestingly, the HRC President did not call them out by name but cautioned that activists should not be threatened -- and then Sri Lanka obliged by exercising their “right of reply” to that statement, thereby ensuring everyone knew the statement was directed at them!
Resolution more significant because of Sri Lankan reaction. Text is very mild, but Sri Lanka made a big deal out of it, so it made it a more powerful resolution.
India’s votes show power of/need for civil society in emerging democracies. India would not have voted yes if their Tamil parliament members had not demanded it. Tamil parliament members were worked up by civil society outreach in Tamil Nadu. Civil society pressure also ensured Brazil voted yes on Iran resolution, which was key for wider support.
The lesson is that we can take risks and succeed with a good strategy even when it comes to countries with a lot of friends at the UN. Must apply pressure and they will almost always end up being exposed. Same was true for Iran: They sent their human rights minister to both Geneva for HRC and New York for UNGA. Every time he opened his mouth we picked up votes!
So, will conclude by saying that the Council remains imperfect, but it is now a vastly improved body that is doing its main job of protecting and promoting human rights and that while battles at the HRC are fiercely contested, they are worth fighting and they can often be won.