As the Trump administration threatens to turn its back on international organizations unwilling to rubber-stamp Washington’s policies and meet its demands, an early inevitable target is expected to be the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. In both the White House and Congress, opposition to the Council hangs on two basic complaints: that countries that violate human rights are allowed to take seats (to which they have been elected) in the 47-member body and that the membership is inherently and irredeemably biased against Israel.
Keith Harper was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the Council and other human-rights institutions in Geneva from 2014 to 2017, when Trump, as president-elect, ordered all ambassadors to leave their posts immediately on Jan. 1, without normal transitions. In Harper’s view, a United States exit from the Human Rights Council would turn American interests upside down, especially regarding Israel and the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
The Obama engagement with the Council, Harper said in an interview with PassBlue on March 15, has significantly improved the place of Israel in Council deliberations, and those gains would surely be lost.
“With respect to Israel, we have to start with the notion, which is true, that there is a bias against Israel,” he said, acknowledging that there is much more to be done. “From the very beginning of the Council, there has been undue focus on Israel.” He added that it is the only country in the world that has a stand-alone item on the Council’s mandate, No. 7, allowing for special sessions to held on Israel alone, beyond regular business.
One special session on Israel, now underway, has sparked new anger among Israel’s supporters and Council critics at a volatile time. The US announced on March 20 that it would boycott the session this week.
The acting State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, added in a statement: “Later this week, the United States will vote against every resolution put forth under this agenda item and is encouraging other countries to do the same.” The US does not have veto power in the Human Rights Council.
Harper said that this move overlooked important recent history in the Council, which began operating in 2006, replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission. “We have chipped away at that bias over the years, and US engagement is critical to ensuring the protection of Israel. One important example:
“During the first three and a half years, when the United States was limited in engagement with the Council under the [George W.] Bush administration, when we had no ambassador, there were six special sessions on Israel. Think about that: three and a half years, six special sessions. In the subsequent seven years of the US on the Council, there has been one special session. While the US is fully engaged, with an ambassador in place, there has been one special session in seven years.”
“My own view is that would be essentially diplomatic malpractice to disengage, in light of all the benefits that the US leadership has brought to bear as far as the outcome from the Council,” added Harper, an international-rights lawyer who has returned to practice at Kirkpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Washington, D.C. As a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, he has worked extensively on indigenous rights in the US and overseas.
Harper points to three broad areas where the US achieved “big successes” in the Human Rights Council in the Obama years:
The first, he said, was to open investigations where there were “grievous and dire” human-rights situations not getting enough attention. “There is no question that US leadership, working with our partners, has allowed us to pass numerous resolutions on countries like North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, Burundi, South Sudan, Belarus,” he said. “And on top of that the numerous special sessions that the US and the UK had on Syria, which demonstrated time and time again that the bad actor in Syria, the principal bad actor, was [President Bashar] Assad and the Assad regime.
“The second area that I think the US has been a critical leader in is fundamental freedoms — freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Internet freedom,” he said. “At the Council, there is a debate about how to define those rights — traditional liberal civil freedoms — and working with our partners, we’ve been able to define them in a way consistent with our views.”
The third area he described as emerging human-rights issues, including preventing and countering violent extremism, as well as other challenges to human safety.
“One of the ones I’m most proud of is our actions working with key partners, particularly those in Latin America, on protections related to violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons — social inclusion and gender identity.” He said that when the US arrived at the Council, there was a “dogfight” over gender issues, and for the first time the US could open a productive discussion. “That wouldn’t have happened without the United States. Our allies and partners simply don’t have the muscle to get something like that through.”
On specific countries, Harper said, an example of American work may have been unblocking a stalemate in Sri Lanka over responsibilities for extreme violations of rights and horrific abuses (committed by both sides) in a long civil war, which ended in 2009.
“Sri Lanka is an example, possibly the best example, of where US leadership, working with key allies, has been able to transform the political reality and human rights situation on the ground,” he said. In Sri Lanka, a hard-line Sinhalese nationalist president, Mahendra Rajapaksa, wanted no investigation into the atrocities committed by his forces at the end of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. “He would have no accountability and of course that meant no reconciliation with the minority Tamil community,” Harper said.
In the Council, the US-led effort to pass a series of resolutions resulted in setting up an investigation in 2014. A new president of Sri Lanka, elected in 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, changed the political calculus with the help of the Council’s actions, Harper said. With a new government came a commitment by the Sirisena administration to accept an accountability process — yet to happen. “It’s two steps forward, one step back, but the change in the trajectory is undeniable,” Harper said.
Working in the atmosphere of the Human Rights Council, the ambassador said: “I learned a tremendous amount. Colleagues from around the world have given me great insights on how they address human rights issues, and we give them insights as to our approach. Everybody focuses on the outcomes, but there is a process that leads to those outcomes — and those outcomes are not preordained; they’re based on a lot of hard work by diplomats trying to both represent their nations and also get to a relatively just result.”
And with the US gone from the Council, what could be next for human rights?
“Over time, countries, particularly in what’s known as the like-minded group, who do not share our values and our ideas of what human rights are, they then define human rights. China and Russia and Cuba, Venezuela — they then are dramatically empowered,” Harper said. “That would be unfortunate, because I think we have been able to show the world the power the Council can be, and the last thing we would want to see it revert back to a place where it turns human rights on its head.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.