WASHINGTON — The United Nations Human Rights Council is attracting more attention here by both supporters and critics in the government and beyond. Some of the council’s defenders and naysayers, speaking at various Washington venues last month, ultimately expressed the same goal: to see the rights body improve.
The council’s action last winter recommending that the General Assembly suspend the membership of Libya is still receiving positive feedback. This was particularly so at a panel assessing the United States’ role in the council, organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last month, and at a forum devoted to Libya, also held on Oct. 19, at the US Institute of Peace, sponsored by the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area.
Is a Better Council Possible?
The Woodrow Wilson panel reflected constructive and critical views of the 47-member Human Rights Council. Morton Halperin, senior adviser at the Open Society Foundations and a senior defense and national security official during the Nixon/Kissinger and Clinton years, argued that there was no alternative to the council that could engage enough countries to be credible.
The best hope for increasing effectiveness, he said, is to aim to improve the council’s efficiency and to change its policies regarding such emerging democracies as South Africa, Nigeria and Chile. Halperin reported that human rights defenders working in situations of considerable risk far from Washington say that the council matters and that the US should remain active in it.
Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and close observer of the UN who routinely calls for the US to leave the council, said that some improvements in its work would have occurred even without US membership. Despite advances, he said, the council was not productive in protecting human rights because it has no meaningful criteria for membership and its composition is virtually the same as the discredited Human Rights Commission, which it replaced, he said.
The recent five-year review of the council, which is based in Geneva, had missed a chance for bettering membership and procedures and curtailing a bias against Israel, Schaefer said, adding that the US faces diminishing returns in its goal to increase the council’s usefulness. Instead, he added, it should instead focus efforts on the General Assembly’s Third Committee and devote its energies at the UN to issues where its vital interests are at stake.
The Israel Puzzle
Paula Schriefer, the advocacy director at Freedom House, a nonprofit group producing annual rankings of free and nonfree countries, agreed with many of Schaefer’s criticisms but thought that the US should connect more with the council, not less. Using Freedom House data, she said that the council’s membership was better than that of its predecessor, except in the past two years, and that Israel’s problems in the council applied generally to its position in the UN. Still, she pointed out that the resolutions on Israel at the council were far more numerous than on any other country and used harsher language and were more one-sided.
Ruth Wedgwood, a professor of international law at John Hopkins University with extensive experience in UN human rights treaty bodies, endorsed many of the critical comments of the other speakers, adding that the council reflects a messy world. She approves of the Universal Periodic Review tool and said that in general the special rapporteurs did a good job and that universal membership was advisable for the council’s makeup.
The US, however, could improve the institution by relying on highly targeted voluntary contributions, she suggested. Halperin also thought that special financing could enhance the council, while Schriefer said that such contributions could be used to pay the mandate holders, like the special rapporteurs, who work for no pay.
Also last month, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, part of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives, held a public hearing on the government’s relationship with the council. Rep. Jim McGovern (Democrat, Massachusetts) touched on council successes since the US joined in 2009. But echoing a constant theme, he also criticized it for being overly focused on Israel and concluded that hard work by the US remained to improve the council’s record.
Suzanne Nossel, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, spoke at the hearing as well.
By 2009, she said, the council had hit “rock bottom,” but she cited achievements since the US joined: two special sessions held on Syria; authorizing an investigation in Libya; creating a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran; adopting a resolution on lesbian, gay and transgender rights; preventing adoption of a dangerous resolution on defamation of religions; and reducing the proportion of resolutions condemning Israel from a high of 50 percent to 30 percent of all country-specific resolutions in 2011.
Testimony by Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution and Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch also emphasized the importance of US engagement in the council and improvements since the US came on board. Piccone, who has written a study on special rapporteurs, said that they needed more support, but McGovern noted that finding more funds would be a challenge during the current Congress.
As to spoiler states, Hicks said that regional groups have hurt any establishment of workable majorities in the council, but that the US had helped to break up the tendency toward regionalism. If the US disengaged, she added, it would benefit countries like Cuba, China and Russia, who want the council to be toothless.
As Nossel said, many members are still unwilling to “name and shame” countries that violate human rights, but that the US was working to curb this tendency.
In addition, the Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force of the United Nations Association of the USA submitted a statement to the Lantos hearing. The group, consisting of experts on international human rights and the role of the UN and the US in protecting those rights, was active in urging the US to seek membership on the council. In its statement at the hearing, it said that US membership has led to real gains on the council, including its investigations on Libya, Syria and Cote d’Ivoire. Shortcomings included bias against Israel and the membership criteria.
Proposed Legislation Against the UN
The incredible amounts of public dialogue on the Human Rights Council in Washington last month should be placed in the context of legislation now under consideration in Congress. The UN Transparency, Accountability and Reform Act of 2011, introduced by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would prohibit US participation in the council and withhold financing until various reforms were made. These would prevent countries that are subject to Security Council sanctions or a Security Council investigation for human rights abuses from running for a seat.
The bill would also withhold a portion of UN dues, bar voluntary contributions to the council and ban the US from running for a seat until the US secretary of state certifies that the council agenda does not include a permanent item on Israel. In addition, the proposed legislation would withhold the US portion of the contribution allocated by the UN to support the special rapporteur, Richard Falk, who is mandated to report on the human rights situation in Palestine and the occupied Arab territories, as well as any other special procedure used to display bias against Israel.
The Ros-Lehtinen bill has been approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee, but its future is uncertain. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has written that she would recommend that President Obama veto it. Yet its presence in Washington dialogue on the council is disturbing if indicative of the mood in an important – if fortunately small – share of public opinion and among certain political leaders.
The bill would push the US away from the UN by substituting broad and targeted financial cutbacks for serious, active diplomacy. It would assert the damaging principle that countries are justified in unilaterally opting out of council special procedures that irritate them. This would certainly be a comfort to countries abusing human rights that routinely attack special mandate holders for their independence and effectiveness. It would also dishearten human rights defenders who are risking their own lives to protect others against government abuses.
Finally, the bill would undermine the efforts of the US in naming and shaming human rights violators at the UN and in promoting reforms that are needed to make the council more effective.
A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.