With little fanfare, last week marked the conclusion of a foreign policy experiment six years in the making. After two consecutive three-year terms, U.S. membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) has expired. The end of U.S. tenure on the Council offers an opportunity to assess what the United States has accomplished, what challenges remain, and how Washington should consolidate its gains moving forward.
In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would seek membership in the HRC—reversing the policy of former President George W. Bush, whose advisors had considered the Council little improvement over its predecessor, the now defunct Commission on Human rights (CHR). Critics pilloried the decision. President Bush’s ambassador to the UN, John R. Bolton, likened joining the Human Rights Council to “getting on board the Titanic after it’s hit the iceberg.” President Obama’s policy of working with the Council, rather than critiquing it from the outside, has been the subject of much debate ever since, with skeptics maintaining that the HRC is irretrievably flawed.
So where do things stand now? Far better than naysayers would have you believe. The Council continues to suffer weaknesses—namely, substandard membership and disproportionate focus on Israel—but active U.S. participation has also yielded successes that were unimaginable just six years ago.
U.S. participation went a long way toward strengthening the Council’s legitimacy and effectiveness. Four achievements are worth highlighting.
Syria: In the early years of the Arab Spring, the Human Rights Council offered the first and most effective UN venue to spotlight the atrocities of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On U.S. initiative, the HRC held its first emergency session on the Syria crisis on April 29, 2011, resulting in a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights documenting crimes against humanity. Over the next year, the United States rallied global support for three more special sessions on Syria, leading to the creation of an independent commission of inquiry. The Council’s investigations were vital to broader U.S. efforts to condemn and isolate the Syrian regime, particularly in light of deadlock in the UN Security Council, where veto-wielding Russia and China have continued to block decisive action.
Country-specific resolutions: In its recent sessions, the HRC has adopted resolutions on the dire state of human rights in countries around the world, from North Korea and Iran to Sri Lanka and Belarus. Country-specific resolutions are now taken for granted, but they were no sure bet six years ago. With the exception of resolutions on Israel and a handful of African countries, the HRC (like the CHR before it) was loath to spotlight specific governments’ human rights records. The United States changed that, spearheading country-specific resolutions, encouraging others to cooperate, and naming and shaming those that remained defiant.
LGBT rights: The United States also persuaded the HRC to take unprecedented action on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. After rallying cross-regional support for a joint statement in March 2011 against discrimination and violence committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the United States partnered with South Africa—one of the few African countries where LGBT rights are enshrined in law—to introduce a landmark resolution on human rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The resolution was narrowly adopted, thanks to the support of traditional Western allies—such as the United Kingdom and France—as well as non-Western partners—including Brazil, Cuba, Mauritius, and Thailand.
The 2011 resolution laid the groundwork for a follow-on resolution in October 2014. Despite staunch behind-the-scenes opposition from Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the resolution—sponsored by Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and the United States—won support from an even broader coalition of countries.
Breaking down voting blocs: None of these achievements would have been possible had the United States not invested considerable diplomatic capital in breaking down voting blocs in the UN—such as the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)— that have long obstructed decisive action. By actively courting nontraditional partners in Geneva as well as in capitals, U.S. diplomats forged new relationships that were decisive to passing resolutions with cross-regional support.
These achievements notwithstanding, U.S. membership hasn’t remedied all of the Human Rights Council’s chronic ills.
Membership: Browsing the HRC’s roster of members, it’s easy to question the body’s credibility. Year after year, countries with egregious human rights records like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia continue to secure seats. Supporters of the Human Rights Council had hoped that its composition would be an improvement on the CHR, since HRC membership requires election by a majority of states in the UN General Assembly. Unfortunately, these reforms have failed to keep human rights offenders off the HRC, where they continue to water down language and obstruct resolutions.
Israel: Disproportionate focus on Israel—one of the biggest U.S. criticisms of the former CHR—is a major problem. Even as other human rights abusers evade scrutiny, Israel remains the subject of a stand-alone HRC agenda item. Ending, or at least alleviating, the Council’s disproportionate focus on Israel was one of the Obama administration’s chief motivations for reengaging the HRC in 2009. Six years later, the HRC’s record on Israel is mixed. Deft U.S. diplomacy has facilitated some progress in normalizing the HRC’s treatment of Israel, including by securing Israel’s admission into the Western European and Other States Group (WEOG) in 2013. In return, Israel agreed to participate in its Universal Periodic Review, thereby ending its boycott of the Council. This was a victory for the United States and Israel, but also for the Human Rights Council itself. Nonetheless, the United States hasn’t succeeded in significantly reducing the HRC’s bias toward Israel. This isn’t to suggest that the Council should let Israel’s human rights record go unchallenged. Rather, Israel’s abuses should be judged alongside those of other countries, not in a class of its own.
As a nonmember, the United States must consolidate the gains it’s made over the past six years while preventing the resurgence of the Council’s worst tendencies. Luckily, nonmember status won’t inhibit Washington’s ability to exert influence in the HRC. The United States should use its large diplomatic presence in Geneva in two ways.
First, the United States should leverage its convening power to continue building cross-regional coalitions with likeminded governments as well as nontraditional partners. Last year’s progress on LGBT rights was made possible through close U.S. collaboration with South American sponsors, whose leadership bestowed greater legitimacy upon the resolution. The resolution even earned support from traditional U.S. “adversaries,” such as Cuba and Venezuela. U.S. diplomats should aim to replicate these successes across other issue areas.
Second, the United States shouldn’t lose sight of its goal of strengthening the Council’s membership. There are plenty of UN member states that abide by their human rights obligations but don’t have the resources to fully participate in the HRC. The U.S. Mission in Geneva should marshal resources to assist these countries in elections for HRC membership and, once elected, help build their diplomatic capacities in Geneva.
Finally, as the race for the White House heats up, it’s worth considering what tack the next administration—whether Democratic or Republican—would take on the Human Rights Council. While candidates from both parties will be tempted to focus exclusively on the Council’s weaknesses, they would do well to remember the lessons of the previous six years: on the whole, the HRC performs best when the United States participates, not when it sits on the sidelines.