Since the creation of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2006, U.S. critics have repeatedly tarred the HRC as a feckless haven for human rights abusers and a platform for egregious attacks of Israel. By their reckoning, President George W. Bush was correct to wash his hands of the body, whereas Barack Obama sullied his own in bringing the United States into the body in 2009. But critics overlook transformational improvements. The HRC remains deeply imperfect. But thanks to the Obama administration’s dogged diplomacy, it has started to turn the corner, gaining “newfound credibility as a human rights watchdog.”
This is the compelling conclusion of a new CFR report, “Advancing Human Rights in the UN System,” by Suzanne Nossel, the new executive director of Amnesty International USA. To be sure, Nossel is hardly a disinterested observer. As deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 2009 to 2011, she played a central role in crafting the Obama administration’s strategy for engaging and reforming the HRC. But she makes a persuasive case that the U.S. decision to rejoin that body—and its determination to lead reform from within—was the right one.
The U.S. choice to join the Human Rights Council was not straightforward. Many senior Obama administration officials believed the Bush administration had gotten it right: the HRC was essentially a lost cause, and U.S. membership would simply legitimize a flawed institution. Its track record ignored the most egregious human rights situations, from Cuba and Belarus to Sudan and Sri Lanka, and adopted a stand-alone agenda item on alleged abuses by Israel (the only country so designated). After internal debate, however, the administration chose to run for election to the body, wagering that the United States, by working from inside, could turn the organization around.
The Obama administration entered with an ambitious agenda rather than a diffident attitude. First, it ramped up its representation in Geneva, creating a Senate-confirmed ambassadorial slot focused entirely on the HRC, a position that Ambassador Eileen Donahoe would use to great effect. Second, it formulated a strategy to break up the entrenched regional bloc dynamics that have long stymied cooperation between developed and developing countries on human rights matters. Third, it determined to push critical country-specific resolutions, designed to “put more human rights violators in the hot seat,” brushing aside warnings that such a step would backfire. Finally, it sought to push forward thematic resolutions on important human rights topics.
This four-fold strategy has paid dividends. Generally, HRC members responded positively to the assertion of U.S. leadership. Washington’s willingness to work across the North-South divide resulted in breakthroughs, most notably a successful “freedom of expression” resolution cosponsored with Egypt. On country-specific resolutions, the United States began gradually, working first to secure resolutions for human rights monitoring in countries experiencing political transition (including Guinea and Kyrgystan), before moving on to secure more forceful resolutions against regimes committing egregious human rights abuses. These included a session exposing repression by forces loyal to Ivoirian president Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to give up power after losing an election to Alassane Ouattara. As Nossel describes, the HRC’s resulting commission of inquiry provided evidence to support Gbagbo’s indictment by the ICC and to legitimize assistance by UN peacekeepers and French forces to Ouattara—who eventually emerged victorious.
But it was in response to the Arab Awakening that the HRC truly rose to the occasion. As the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi, launched a wave of killings against regime protestors that threatened to escalate into mass atrocities, the HRC responded more quickly than the hamstrung UN Security Council, condemning Qaddafi’s abuses, dispatching a high-level investigative commission under the prominent jurist Cherif Bassiouni, and suspending Libya’s HRC membership—all before the UNSC had taken a single action. Indeed, the tough HRC resolution on Libya provided momentum for the UNSC to refer the Libya situation to the ICC—and to adopt Resolution 1973 three weeks later, authorizing “all necessary means” to protect civilians there.
The United States scored another important HRC victory in 2011, in winning support from the membership to restore the mandate for the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, a campaign undertaken against initially heavy odds. Here, the administration’s cross-regional approach was critical. Washington engineered a group of cosponsors that included Zambia, Colombia, the Maldives, Macedonia, and Sweden. In the end the resolution sailed through with only seven “no” votes out of forty-seven members. The full report on Iran, produced in March 2012, documented continued, systematic abuses by the regime in Tehran.
Similarly in Syria, the HRC has been at the forefront in calling the regime of Bashar al-Assad to account for gross violations of human rights. In April 2011, the United States engineered a special HRC session condemning the regime and endorsing an investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). After the OHCHR produced a report in August documenting crimes against humanity, the HRC dispatched an independent commission of inquiry. Finally, in December another HRC special rapporteur documented a systemic campaign of state-led violence. Given the continued deadlock within the UNSC, the HRC has become “the United Nations’ principal vehicle for isolating the Syrian regime and expressing the condemnation of an expanding circle of regional neighbors.”
Beyond placing abusers in the “hot seat”, the United States has over the past three years scored some impressive victories on thematic resolutions. For years, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and its predecessor (the Organization of the Islamic Conference) had pushed a “defamation of religion” resolution that collided with free speech principles. The Obama administration, building on its emerging partnership with Egypt, launched a diplomatic outreach to major Muslim capitals, from Jeddah to Islamabad. The result was an historic achievement: passage of a resolution on freedom of expression and religion that contained none of the problematic language—and yet enjoyed widespread support among Muslim countries. Another signature success—virtually unimaginable only a few years ago—was the U.S. victory in engineering the support of a HRC resolution affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. Central to this triumph was the U.S. ability to enlist the leadership of South Africa in building cross-regional support for the resolution, particularly on the African continent.
To be sure, the HRC remains a flawed instrument for advancing human rights. Among the biggest limitations is its lack of clear membership criteria. Although the United States has kept some egregious human rights violators off of the Council–thwarting Iran’s 2010 bid, for example—persistent patterns of regional bloc voting make it too easy for rights violators, like Pakistan or China, to secure membership. As Nossel notes, raising the bar to HRC membership remains a pressing priority.
Finally and most egregiously, the HRC continues to focus disproportionately on Israel, the only country that remains as a standing agenda item in Geneva—even as countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe escape scrutiny. While the United States cannot turn a blind eye to alleged Israeli human rights abuses, it must continue to try to rectify this gross prejudice against Israel.