|Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council
“The Human Rights Council: How relevant is it and what is the role of the United States?” – BY Ambassador Donahoe
(Delivered at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy,January 24, 2013)
Thank you Ambassador Tanner for this invitation and the lovely reception. I am so pleased to see friends and colleagues here who have become close partners at the Human Rights Council. I have heard a great deal about the Geneva Center for Security Policy, but this is the first time I have been able to participate in a GCSP event and I am delighted and honored to be here. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to reflect today on the U.S. role at the Human Rights Council.
This past November, two elections – both of which have important bearing on our work to promote and protect human rights, were held. First, and most importantly, on November 6, President Obama was re-elected to a second term, and the American people returned to office a President with a proven commitment to the defense of human rights, freedom and democracy. We celebrated the inauguration of President Obama to his second term this past Monday. One signature of the Obama presidency is its commitment to work within multilateral organizations to advance key foreign policy objectives. The decision to seek membership and work within the framework of the UN Human Rights Council is a clear example of this commitment, and reflects a momentous shift from the previous administration. President Obama’s willingness to invest U.S. resources and diplomatic energy to engage robustly at the Human Rights Council marked a dramatic turn toward multilateral engagement generally, and toward a serious U.S. effort to use the UN and the Human Rights Council specifically, to fulfill our duty to promote and protect human rights.
The second November election was nowhere near as significant, but was directly relevant to our work here in Geneva — and this was the reelection of the United States to a second three-year term on the Human Rights Council. We are deeply honored to have been re-elected to the HRC. We know that our re-election was not by any means assured, and we are grateful to those who supported us. We are proud that our regional group -WEOG – put forward an inspiring slate of highly qualified candidates, each of whom deserves credit for its willingness to participate in a competitive election rather than wait for a clean slate opportunity –which has been the norm. The competitive WEOG election produced a moment of almost hushed suspense in the General Assembly as the votes, which had been cast in secret, were counted and announced. The competitive regional slate model is a practice that we hope will be followed by all groups in the near future. Genuinely competitive elections may become a measure of the maturity of the HRC going forward.
As we take up our seat for a second term at the Council, the United States returns determined to work in collaboration with delegations who share our commitment to the defense of human rights and who want to make the Human Rights Council as dynamic and effective a body as it can be.
Today is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on these two elections – or “mandate renewals” – to use a Geneva turn of phrase, and to focus on the opportunity that membership at the Human Rights Council has presented to the United States, as well as to consider the difference U.S. membership has made to the Human Rights Council.
Put very simply, membership at the Human Rights Council has provided an important tool to the United States to pursue its deep and abiding national commitment to the promotion of human rights. This has been true and been made possible specifically because we have had the full support of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, and been given the authority to be as creative and energetic as possible in forging new solutions to critical human rights problems with our international partners.
Further, I would argue that U.S. membership at the UN Human Rights Council has created a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship for the U.S. and the HRC. From where I sit as the first U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, the period of time when the U.S. effectively chose to boycott the HRC was a wasted opportunity. In effect, we undermined our own goals and weakened a potential tool for our own foreign policy priority of promoting and protecting freedom, democracy and human rights. Correspondingly, during that phase of U.S. non-engagement, the HRC was deprived of an important voice of moral leadership.
President Obama’s decision to change course and seek a seat at the HRC required and reflected a certain confidence in the leadership role the U.S. could play in a multilateral setting like the HRC. Yet in context, his decision was not easy or clear cut. In 2009, when the United States joined the Human Rights Council, the HRC reputation – certainly inside the U.S. – was abysmal. Many thoughtful commentators believed that it was a futile exercise to try to reform the Council.
Most critics saw the Council as a dysfunctional and wholly ineffective institution. Even The New York Times – which was in favor of U.S. engagement – referred to the Council as an “international embarrassment.” The Council’s flaws were well known, including a structural and persistent anti-Israel bias, a consistent failure to speak out and act on chronic and urgent human rights crises, membership that included states with poor human rights records, and political-regional block dynamics that obstructed action. Few believed that President Obama’s decision to engage in a robust diplomatic effort at the Council would pay dividends.
Yet, President Obama, Secretary Clinton and others, including Ambassador Rice, made a different calculus. They understood that making a serious diplomatic investment and sustained leadership effort was warranted. They believed that it was a U.S. responsibility to try to guide the organization toward a more functional and impactful future. They had no guarantees. They didn’t even have good indications that it could be done. But they understood that if successful, the effort could pay big dividends and they made the right call to try. So, with a clear understanding of its weaknesses and concrete plans to deliver results, the United States took a seat at the Council in September 2009.
When I arrived in Geneva, in addition to the structural problems already noted, I set three core priorities for the United States at the Council.
1. To make a difference on the ground for human rights defenders and victims;
2. To enhance the efficacy of the Council in addressing crisis and chronic human rights situations;
3. To find new avenues to work cooperatively with other nations cross-regionally toward effective human rights protection and promotion.
These core principles remain in place as our touchstones as we head into our second term. And we are happy to report that we have seen significant progress in each of these areas. Over the past three years, the HRC’s effectiveness has increased dramatically by successfully focusing global attention on some of the most egregious human rights violators, and providing a forum where the voices of human rights defenders are heard. The Council also has found a new ability to confront urgent human rights crises in real time. The opportunities for genuine cross-regional partnerships on universal human rights priorities have been abundant.
Notable examples of the Council’s progress and impact
Let me cite some notable examples of the Council’s progress and impact.
As Iranian authorities tightened their iron grip on civil society following the “green movement” protests of 2009-2010, the HRC appointed its first Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed’s reports have focused global attention on the horrific treatment of civil society actors in Iran, including lawyers, journalists, and students. He has brought new attention to the plight of women specifically and the threats to freedom of assembly generally. His reports provide a unique lever of pressure on the Iranian regime and help ensure that the truth about its brutality gets international attention. The creation of this new mandate was a significant victory for human rights defenders inside Iran.
At a key moment during Cote d’Ivoire’s 2010 presidential election crisis, the HRC met in special session to reinforce fundamental democratic principles and demand restoration of the rule of law and respect for the will of the Ivorian people. The HRC gave voice to international concern about the violations and abuses committed in connection with the presidential election, and successfully reinforced timely restoration of the rule of law. In this instance, HRC action was important in generating international awareness of the election crisis and provided crucial support for a democratic outcome when it was threatened.
If the Council had one moment that could be called a turning point, it came during the Libya crisis in 2011. As demonstrations and a demand for democracy and independence spread across North Africa and the Middle East – the period often referred to as the “Arab Spring” or “Arab Awakening” — the HRC discovered in itself a new ability to address even the most complex and politically charged international crises. As Ban Ki-Moon noted at the time, “the ‘Arab Awakening’ also produced an awakening at the Human Rights Council.”
As people around the world watched and shared in a genuine sense of horror when Qaddafi proclaimed his intention to crush the will of the people and hunt down critics of the regime “like rats,” human rights defenders came to Geneva to demand a unified international response. The HRC was not yet practiced in responding to crises in real time especially in politically difficult and complex cases. The Council had not yet developed the “muscle memory” for consistently utilizing the machinery of the Council to respond to crises. Yet, armed with the courage that only comes from knowing that we were doing the right thing, a few delegations banded together and simply asserted that a special session in this case was warranted and “would” be successful. Here I must give a shout out specifically to the UK delegation for its leadership in this moment.
During the urgent session, in a moment of emotional drama, the Libya Ambassador had a representative speak for the delegation because he was in the hospital after having suffered a heart attack. The Libyan representative announced there and then that he was no longer speaking on behalf of the Qadaffi regime, but was speaking on behalf of the Libyan people. His dramatic presentation compelled a new sense of responsibility among member states and a recognition that the HRC must and could rise to the moment.
The Libya crisis presented an enormous growth experience for the Council, and the membership responded with a unity of purpose that helped galvanize further international action. We voted to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the gross and systematic human rights violations, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and called on the UN General Assembly to suspend Libya’s membership rights in the Council. That suspension followed within days, and was the first time a sitting member ever had its membership rights suspended. This was a clear and important step toward keeping the world’s worst human rights violators off the Council.
Let me continue with a few other data points of real progress at the HRC, even if less dramatic than the Libya case. Despite resistance from undemocratic regimes, the HRC has also made significant progress in boosting international protection for fundamental civil and political rights. Very concretely, over the past three years, the Council established outright a new mandate holder to ensure global protection for the important and increasingly threatened fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. We see “FOAA,” as we call it, as almost a “meta-right” in that the ability of people to organize and share ideas and views is an essential means of ensuring the protection of all human rights. Without the freedom to meet and share ideas, the ability of citizens around the world to contribute to improvement in their societies will be limited. Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai has done important reporting on global best practices that ensure that peaceful assembly and association are shielded from undue interference, and his work has underscored the centrality of FOAA to the emergence and existence of effective democratic systems.
In another significant contribution, the Council created a critical recognition by the international community with respect to the everyday violence and discrimination faced by LGBT people around the world. The Council took an important step in condemning violence and discrimination against LGBT people and asserting that it cannot be tolerated or permitted by governments. The landmark HRC resolution, led by South Africa and a cross-regional coalition, affirmed the universality of human rights and made explicit the inclusion of LGBT people in those universal protections. The resolution commissioned the first-ever UN report on the challenges faced by LGBT people and provided an important cross-regional education moment
Recognizing the centrality of freedom of expression to combating religious intolerance, a diverse group of delegations worked together in March 2011 to draft a consensus resolution that protects fundamental freedoms of religion and expression, while simultaneously expressing its deep concern about intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief. The resolution known as 16/18, marked a sea change in the global dialogue on countering offensive and hateful speech based on religion or belief.
Religious intolerance and hatred are serious global problems about which deep philosophical and cultural differences remain. This continues to be a highly contested subject. But the consensus agreement reached with the leadership of Pakistan and Turkey and others, has meant that rather than focusing on intractable philosophical differences which feed the notion of a clash of civilizations, we have turned attention to practical actions and solutions on which we all agree, and that actually lead to a lessening of hatred and intolerance.
In a moment of great personal meaning for me, coming as I do from Silicon Valley, this past July the Council passed the first UN resolution affirming Internet Freedom based on the simple yet profound principle that human rights must be protected online just as they are offline. We understand that the Internet has become the landscape for human rights promotion and protection in the 21st century. While the international community obviously is in the midst of a period of struggle over contested notions of Internet governance and security, this landmark HRC resolution provides a bedrock foundation for the international commitment to protect human rights online – to the same extent and with the same commitment as in the physical world. The full meaning and importance of this resolution will only be realized in the future.
Finally, I will mention the Council’s work with respect to the conspicuous case of the human rights crisis in Syria which has plagued the international community for the past two years. The ongoing and deteriorating situation in Syria remains one of the most difficult issues before the Council today. Early in the revolt as Assad’s forces unleashed heavy weapons against unarmed peaceful protestors and civilians, the HRC built upon the institutional “muscle memory” created by the abhorrent slaughter in Libya and dispatched a fact-finding mission that focused international attention on the nascent crisis. This initial response was triggered in part, by a massacre by sniper fire of family members of peaceful protestors at a funeral for those protestors.
As the catastrophic human rights and humanitarian situation deteriorated, the Council raised pressure on the Assad regime by creating a Commission of Inquiry to document the widespread and systematic human rights violations, such as the massacres in Homs, Hama, Daraa. The Human Rights Council has held multiple urgent sessions to address different aspects of the human rights crisis, including the massacre at Al Houla in which over 100 civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered. The Commission has assembled a substantial body of evidence of the regime’s atrocities and alleged crimes against humanity that will be invaluable to ensuring future accountability. The Council has recently added new resources to the COI to ensure that the evidence of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes is captured and safeguarded so that accountability for these crimes against the Syrian people is possible. During the past two years of this crisis, the Human Rights Council arguably has been one of the international institutions that has performed its function well, and served its purpose and function in the interests of the Syrian people.
The list of accomplishments I have noted from just the past two years is not exhaustive; there are others important initiatives that could have been highlighted. But I think this list of examples gives a clear indication of the dramatic progress seen at the Council, and provides a compelling case that the bet President Obama made in seeking membership at the Human Rights Council has paid off.
As I conclude, I’d like to come back around to the two central questions of the Council’s relevance to real world foreign policy and the nature of the U.S. role at the Human Rights Council. It is no longer contestable that the Council is relevant to the international effort to promote and protect human rights. As diplomats here, we work together at the vanguard of some of the most critical issues of our times and our actions are making a difference to human rights issues and human rights actors on the ground. There is no question that the Human Rights Council has become an important venue for addressing international crises and finding global solutions to tough problems as they unfold.
Regional blocks wouldn’t work
The success of the Council over the past several years, particularly its ability to address complex cases and respond to international crises in real time, stems in large part from a core working philosophy of cross-regional collaboration and partnership embraced by the U.S. delegation. We have learned first-hand that no multilateral body can succeed if it is stuck in the polarized world of regional blocks. We all lose when individual countries are constrained by pre-ordained group positions. Yet, what we have discovered at the Human Rights Council is that when each individual country reflects on the merits of a human rights question through the lens of its own experience, there is a powerful impetus to do the right thing to protect human rights. The experience of coming to the Human Rights Council has shown us that we have partners all over the world who share in our human rights priorities and values. To me this is evidence that the human rights narrative has become a dominant global narrative that is universally embraced, if not perfectly practiced.
Finally, if there is one overriding basis for knowing that by being at the HRC the U.S. is doing the right thing, it is that human rights defenders tell us every day that they want and need us here. The people who risk their lives on the front lines of the struggle for human rights believe that the United States presence at the Council has real impact. Their message has been heard and we will not disregard their call or turn back. When we use this platform to speak up for human rights defenders and victims, we help to carry their voices and messages out into the world. We know we have an obligation to ensure that they will not be forgotten and we will continue to do our part in this shared endeavor.
Ambassador Donahoe speech at January 24 at the Geneva Center for Security Policy -As prepared for delivery