American commitment to human rights has been longstanding. The United States played an integral role in the establishment of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the negotiation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. We and the rest of the world’s more than 7 billion people will celebrate its 65th anniversary this coming December 10. American commitment is driven by the founding values of our nation, and the conviction that international peace, security and prosperity are strengthened when human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected and protected.
But our conviction is also founded in a fundamental belief that human rights do not belong only to the lucky and the privileged. As President Obama has said, “[We] have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.”
Sadly, far too many of the world’s 7 billion people who will celebrate the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will do so only aspirationally. My old stomping grounds, Freedom House, estimates that a quarter of the world’s population lives in countries where they are denied the most basic human rights. The State Department’s own human rights reports certainly support this view.
What to do about it? The United Nations, as the only multilateral body with global membership, carries both unique capacity and legitimacy in protecting, monitoring, and advancing human rights, just as it carries unique challenges. Through regular and special sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva and through the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York, processes such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the creation of “special procedures” mandates, such as special rapporteurs, commissions of inquiry, and independent experts, the United Nations can bring tremendous resources to bear in investigating and shedding light on human rights situations around the world.
It also brings tremendous legitimacy when its members agree on tasking it to shed light on countries and issues that merit the world’s attention. Resolutions passed at the UN are non-binding, but they carry with them the normative force of a global body.
But the legitimacy that comes from a body of member states spanning the globe also points to the UN’s biggest challenge. It is a body of member states spanning the globe. The United Nations is a reflection of the world we live in and the subsidiary bodies of the UN, including the Human Rights Council, are also reflections of the world we live in. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
It is impossible to talk about the Human Rights Council, without addressing the controversial issue of its membership. The annual elections for roughly a third of the HRC’s membership took place on November 12 and, as is often the case, they made the news. And not in a good way. China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Vietnam, and Cuba, countries widely criticized for their human rights records, were all easily elected to the Council. All but Vietnam have sat on the HRC before. Mostly they won on uncontested slates that virtually assured them of gaining seats. But Cuba was elected in a competitive three-way race, beating out Uruguay for 1 of 2 open seats in the American and Caribbean group of countries.
How does this happen? The Human Rights Council is a body made up of 47 member states elected by the UN General Assembly. They are tasked with the promotion and protection of global human rights and addressing situations of human rights violations. Because of this critical mandate, General Assembly members are supposed to take into account a country’s human rights record and its cooperation with the UN system in casting their secret ballots.
In practice, the GA does nothing of the sort. It has a reasonable record of voting for countries with better human rights records when there is a competitive race. Belarus lost to Bosnia and Slovenia, Nicaragua lost to Peru and Chile, Iran has been forced to withdraw twice, when it became clear it would lose to countries with better records. The same with Syria. In non-competitive races, however, GA members rarely withhold their votes, even for the world’s most egregious human rights violators.
What does this translate to in terms of membership? Once again, Freedom House rankings are often used to analyze the membership of the HRC. Since 2006, the percentage of F(free) countries in the world has hovered around 43% of countries, with PF (partially free) countries comprising between 29% and 31% and NF (not free) countries comprising between 22% and 26%. In most years since the HRC was established, the breakdown of membership between F, PF and NF countries has been slightly better than that of the overall world rankings. So, the HRC is a reflection of the UN, which is a reflection of the world.
Though of course ideally the United States would want to see UN member states with stronger human rights records take seats on the Council, and we actively work to make it better by encouraging countries with better human rights records to run, we acknowledge that its membership will typically be comprised by a little less than half of countries with decent human rights records, a smaller number of countries with mixed records and a minority of countries with very poor records and we roll up our sleeves to work with whatever membership there is to make the Council perform at the highest level possible.
Although the Council still does not succeed in addressing all the countries and issues it should and remains overly consumed with Israel, it is vastly better than before we joined and we have good reason to be proud of our successes.
Though our bid to join the HRC in 2009 was a controversial one at the time, over the last several years that decision has made a significant, positive difference on the Council where we have promoted assertive action on countries such as Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Libya, Eritrea, and North Korea.
We have built and strengthened coalitions to galvanize action on new issues, including the first-ever UN resolution on lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender rights in 2011 and two landmark resolutions on the protection and promotion of Freedom of Assembly and Association.
I will go into a little more detail about a few of the country situations and issues that have been priorities for us. First, Syria. You are probably familiar with some of the horrific statistics coming out of that ongoing civil war. Over 115,000 people killed, including over 40,000 civilians. 2.2 million refugees, a number which may double over the coming year. Another 6.5 million internally displaced within Syria.
The Human Rights Council has been one of the most active and vocal international bodies condemning the atrocities in Syria. The Council has held four special sessions, established an independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI), as well as a special rapporteur to follow up on the work of the Commission of Inquiry once its mandate expires, and it has passed now more than a dozen resolutions, all co-sponsored by the U.S., sharply and repeatedly criticizing the and illuminating the conduct of the government. While the COI has not been granted permission to interview victims inside Syria, they continue to interview displaced Syrians in neighboring countries and to document ongoing violations.
Much of the details we know about the human rights abuses and violations taking place come from the COI. We know that both sides in the conflict are committing atrocities and violations of International Humanitarian Law. We know that the Syrian government is responsible for the majority of violations, including indiscriminate killings and the use of torture and sexual violence, particularly against men and boys in detention. But we also know that the opposition has been involved in unlawful killing, torture, hostage-taking, and use of children in dangerous non-combatant roles.
A second country I’d like to discuss is Iran. Despite the positive rhetoric coming out of the country’s new political leadership, Iran remains a country in which human rights abuses are pervasive. Capital punishment is allotted for crimes that fall well below the most serious crimes standard under international law, including for alcohol consumption, adultery, and drug-trafficking. An estimated 497 executions took place during 2012 and NGO reports indicate 200 have taken place just since Rouhani’s inauguration in August. An estimated 800 human rights defenders, political activists and journalists are in prison and the government defends the use of amputation and flogging as “punishment” rather than torture.
Following the 2009 violent crackdown against peaceful protesters, the Human Rights Council, without U.S. leadership, was able to do nothing. Six months after the U.S. took its seat, a group of countries issued a strong statement condemning the crackdown on its one-year anniversary, and in 2011 the United States led the Council in adopting a resolution that re-instituted the mandate of a special rapporteur on Iran to highlight Iran’s human rights situation. It was the first new country-specific mandate established since the Council replaced the Commission back in 2006.
This past March, at its 22nd session, the United States, together with the EU, Japan, and South Korea, provided critical leadership at the Council to establish the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.). The resolution mandates the commission to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in North Korea, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity. Though they have been denied entry into North Korea, commissioners conducted more than 200 interviews with victims, witnesses and experts during visits to a number of nations, including South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Britain. They then held two days of public hearings in Washington D.C. late last month with testimony so distressing the committee chairperson said some members of the committee were brought to tears.
Not all of the tools of the Human Rights Council are condemnatory. The Council also creates mandates that work with countries under cooperative mandates to provide critical technical assistance and strengthening of institutions to protect human rights. Such mandates have been successfully deployed from Kyrgyzstan to Cote d’Ivoire to Mali.
Perhaps one of the most important functions of the Council is its role in setting international norms on issues that remain controversial, but are essential if all human beings are able to attain the full enjoyment of their human rights. Issues like the rights of LGBT individuals and the recognition that these human beings must be endowed with the same rights as all others, including the right to live free of violence and discrimination. Issues like internet freedom and the importance of recognizing that individuals enjoy the same rights online as offline. Issues like women and children’s rights and the recognition that their rights cannot be subjected to restrictions under the guise of tradition or culture. Issues like freedom of expression and the recognition of the ongoing battle to decide what constitutes legitimate restrictions and what crosses lines leading to censorship and muffling criticism.
Before we turn to a more interactive means of discussing these issues, I’ll wrap up by emphasizing that engaging with the UN’s human rights machinery, especially the Human Rights Council, is by its nature frustrating and often disappointing. Everything accomplished there is harder than it should be, and success requires a robust investment of human and political capital, but the need is enormous and the payoff is ultimately worthwhile. I still believe the words I wrote as a human rights activist over a year before taking this job: Progress is slow and all battles worth fighting at this forum are fiercely contested by opponents of universal human rights. However, the benefits for such engagement are many and the costs of disengagement — in essence ceding the venue to the world’s autocracies — are far too high.