WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United Nations Human Rights Council, the highest organ exclusively responsible for human rights in the world body, is now 10 years old. It recently received concentrated attention here in the United States capital. Such concerted focus would have been unthinkable more than a generation ago, when this writer was active in the field.
Indeed, such a convergence in Washington on human rights shows how far the issue at the UN has won public attention in this country. Yet, the discussions clarified that there is ample room for improvement in advancing human rights through the UN. Progress by the council itself has been widely marked if uneven, however, as the visibility of UN human-rights activities has grown.
Most of the recent attention to UN human-rights work occurred at events presented in May. On the same day that the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan Congressional entity, heard testimony from US State Department officials and nongovernment organizations on the Human Rights Council in its 10 years, the Brookings Institution held a forum with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein; and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, or UNA-NCA, featured a conversation with Keith Harper, the US ambassador to the council.
The Lantos Commission testimony concentrated on country-specific UN actions on human rights, with the commission noting the growing importance and impact of human-rights work at the country level through the council, its rapporteurs and commissions of inquiry as well as the work of the high commissioner, Zeid.
According to Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution, who spoke, the careful documentation of gross violations of human rights by the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea changed the debate on that country from “denial of human rights abuses to acceptance that the UN Security Council must address the matter.”
Other speakers, from the State Department, said that Human Rights Council actions on Sri Lanka had affected the domestic political dialogue in the country and contributed to the government’s willingness to address the injustices associated with the end of the civil war there.
The sole exception in the Commission to a positive view of UN country-specific work on human rights came from Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an independent watchdog group. He said that the council “turned a blind eye on the world’s worst human rights violators,” citing “impunity” for violations in China, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Harper, the US ambassador to the council, countered by noting the joint statement at the Human Rights Council by the US and others on China’s rights record — the first action at the UN on the issue in China.
Also in the Lantos Commission, Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group, termed the council’s Universal Period Review, or UPR, of a country’s human-rights performance “an important success,” while Piccone described the mechanism as an “unprecedented global examination of states’ human rights performance.”
Piccone reported that nearly half of the review recommendations triggered action within two and a half years and that the review “opened the door” to new actors at the national level, either directly in the review process or through shadow reports.
In his Lantos Commission testimony, Mark Lagon, president of Freedom House, spoke of the space created by the review for civil society groups working in their own countries “to shine a light of accountability on their states.”
But it was not clear to Lagon, he said, whether there is “sufficient onus on states to live up to even the recommendations [made in UPR] they agree to meet.” He said the review worked best for smaller and newly democratic countries, citing Mali, where civil society groups were formally consulted and the Ministry of Justice established a working group to prepare the country’s period review report.
In contrast, Neuer said that most of the reviews have failed to be “meaningful, effective, or noteworthy,” and the review is a “mutual praise society.”
As to the impact of the UN’s human-rights institutions within the US, Harper told the UNA-NCA that the requirement to report to the UN’s Committee Against Torture had led to important clarification of US policy on this critical issue.
Proposals to strengthen the Human Rights Council’s membership were highlighted at all the Washington events, including plans to encourage countries with strong human-rights records to run for election to the council by promoting competitive slates, preventing the election of countries with poor human-rights records and supporting more use of the UN General Assembly’s role to expel a member, as it did with Libya.
Describing the council’s current membership to the Lantos Commission, Limon of the Universal Rights Group said that he saw “little evidence” of UN members’ honoring the criteria for membership laid down by the General Assembly. Limon also noted that “concerted efforts must be made to ensure that all council elections are competitive, that there is improved transparency and awareness around the human rights performance and contributions of candidates and that greater pressure is brought to bear on states to vote according to human rights considerations rather than political ones.”
On this topic, Piccone referred to the myth that the majority of council members are authoritarian, pointing out to the Lantos Commission that from 2007-2015, more than three-quarters of council members met the Freedom House standards of “free” and “partly free,” which measure on a seven-point scale the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals.
Arguing that the council’s membership “has never been worse,” Neuer told the Commission that the US should oppose election to the council of human-rights violators, adding that the US was “inexplicably silent” in 2010, when Libya, ruled by Muammar el-Qaddafi, was elected; and in 2013, when China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia were voted in as members.
Neuer said he also regretted the US failure to establish a human-rights “credibility caucus” as envisaged in a 2012 speech by Joseph Torsella, the US ambassador for UN reform at the time. While not defined by Torsella, the caucus seemed to suggest a body to complement the UN’s regional groupings by countries with like-minded, positive human-rights records.
Additional proposals for improving council membership included the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issuing an annual report on how each candidate for membership has cooperated with the council’s mechanisms.
The continuing perceived bias of the UN’s human-rights work against Israel received universal concern among the Washington discussions. Neuer pointed out that in 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had “voiced disappointment at the council decision to single out Israel as the only specific regional item on its agenda.”
The Lantos Commission wanted to know when the standing item on the council’s agenda dealing with Israel could be changed, but it was told that could happen only when the council is next up for review in 2021.
Yet both Harper and Piccone reported improvements in the treatment of Israel: during the early years, the council convened six special sessions on Israel, and since the US joined in 2009, only two such sessions have been held. Erin Barclay, deputy assistant secretary of state in the US State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, said that before US membership, more than half of country-specific resolutions concerned Israel. Now that figure is about one-fifth.
Overall, speakers at the Washington events stressed the continued importance of US engagement in the UN’s work on human rights. Barclay noted, for example, positive changes in council action since the US joined on Sri Lanka, Burundi, North Korea, Iran, LGBT rights and rights to freedom of association and expression.
Lagon expressed surprise over specific past action of the council, which suggested how far it had progressed. “I would never have thought 10 years ago that a resolution devoted to Iran could be passed,” he said.
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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.