from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Gaining Ground at the UN Human Rights Council

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 3, 2014.

October 3, 2014

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 3, 2014.
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Below is a guest post by Daniel Chardell, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) wrapped up its twenty-seventh session in Geneva. It is no secret that the Council is flawed. And yet, over the course of the previous five years, the UNHRC has transformed from a feeble body devoid of standards and integrity into a vibrant—albeit imperfect—forum for the defense of human rights.

Success stories in the news are rare these days. But the United States should take pride in how it brought about this evolution. More importantly, the case reveals that sustained multilateral engagement can yield dividends, given sufficient commitment, resources, and creative diplomacy.

The UNHRC was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which had served as the UN’s premier human rights body since 1946. The Commission was notoriously impotent, farcical even. Countries with egregious human rights records, from Libya to Sudan, managed to become Commission members, affording them a platform to deflect criticism, obstruct meaningful action against flagrant atrocities, and, to the chagrin of the United States, disproportionately bash Israel. The Commission’s work often pitted the West against non-Western countries, which tended to vote in blocs along the lines of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). By the time it was shuttered in 2006, the Commission was discredited and disgraced.

The refashioned Human Rights Council came into being in March 2006 as part of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s campaign to overhaul the UN human rights regime. Annan assured skeptical U.S. officials that the new human rights body would not resort to “business as usual.” But President George W. Bush and his top advisors had misgivings. Convinced that the Council’s mandate set inadequate standards for membership, the United States—alongside only Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—opposed the creation of the new human rights body.

The Bush administration’s concerns were not entirely unwarranted. The Human Rights Council quickly assumed some of its predecessor’s worst qualities: rights abusers secured membership; members voted in lockstep with the OIC and NAM blocs, precluding country-specific resolutions; and Israel became the target of a recurring, standalone agenda item, making it the only country perpetually singled out for such intense scrutiny. For observers in Washington, the Council’s institutionalized bias against Israel was the last straw. The Bush administration’s doubts, it seemed, had been vindicated.

Fast forward to February 2009. After hardly one month on the job, President Barack Obama declared a “new era of engagement” with the world, signifying a departure from his predecessor’s penchant for unilateralism. The following month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the administration would seek membership at the UNHRC. The policy reversal flabbergasted the Council’s harshest U.S. critics. “This is like getting on board the Titanic after it’s hit the iceberg,” warned John R. Bolton, Bush’s ambassador to the UN at the time of the Council’s founding. The Heritage Foundation’s Brett D. Schaefer and Steven Groves confidently predicted that “the performance of the council with the U.S. as a member will be virtually indistinguishable from its performance absent U.S. membership.”

By 2012, however, something startling happened: the Council began acting like the responsible human rights watchdog it was set up to be. Robust U.S. engagement was the decisive factor. The United States actively built cross-regional coalitions that were requisite to breaking up voting blocs and, later, pushing through country-specific resolutions on Iran, Libya, and Yemen, among others. And, beginning in 2011, the Council’s action on Syria proved that the UNHRC could unite in the face of grave human rights abuses. Between 2011 and 2012, the Council convened four emergency sessions devoted exclusively to the human rights situation in Syria. With the support of non-Western countries, including some Arab states, a U.S.-led coalition established a commission of inquiry and, subsequently, a special rapporteur to investigate Bashar al-Assad’s human rights abuses. All the while, the UN Security Council remained deadlocked. “The persistent engagement on Syria by the UNHRC,” writes Suzanne Nossel, “was the United Nations’ principal vehicle for isolating the Syrian regime and expressing the condemnation of an expanding circle of regional neighbors.” In other words, where the Security Council failed, the Human Rights Council succeeded—not least because the United States chose to act within the bounds of the UN system and rally global support by diplomatic means.

At the same time, however, UNHRC sessions were occasionally reminiscent of the Commission era, with the United States and its traditional Western allies at odds with the OIC and NAM on Israel, Palestine, and economic, social, and cultural rights. The Council’s latest session was no exception.

To be sure, the twenty-seventh session gave the Obama administration plenty to celebrate. Most importantly, the UNHRC adopted the second-ever resolution against human rights abuses on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. “Expressing grave concern”—in diplomatic parlance, a fairly robust turn of phrase—“at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity,” the resolution calls on Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the new UN high commissioner for human rights, to update a 2011 report on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. Zeid will present his report at the Council’s twenty-ninth session in the summer of 2015.

One could reasonably argue that the LGBT resolution is “toothless,” or that the motion is merely symbolic. However, the significance of this resolution—and the resistance it faced in the Council—cannot be overstated. Reaching consensus in a global forum is inherently challenging, let alone on an issue as sensitive as sexual orientation. It was far from certain that last week’s LGBT resolution would pass. A host of countries—namely, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Russia—mounted fierce opposition and attempted (in vain) to strip the text of all meaning. Nonetheless, the resolution garnered support from every continent. It was sponsored by Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay. Several non-Western states—such as Cuba, the Philippines, South Africa, Venezuela, and Vietnam—cast their votes in the affirmative. And a number of states—including Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), India, Kazakhstan, Namibia, and Sierra Leone—that might have condemned the resolution displayed tacit support by agreeing to abstain. To be sure, securing such broad support required that the sponsors water down the text. But such is the nature of multilateral cooperation and norm-building: progress is achieved incrementally.

The twenty-seventh session saw a number of other positive developments, including a resolution calling on states to enable civil society organizations to operate freely and safely. As increasingly oppressive governments in Egypt, Russia, and elsewhere clamp down on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, the resolution underscores that civil society—comprising political activists, human rights groups, the media, and a host of others—is vital to the promotion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Additionally, the Council adopted country-specific resolutions on Syria, Yemen, the Central African Republic, the DRC, and Sudan, all of which are witnessing mass human rights abuses and unprecedented humanitarian crises. With the Security Council paralyzed by Russian and Chinese obstruction, the UNHRC remains the most prominent global platform that can credibly investigate and condemn the ongoing atrocities committed in Syria.

Of course, the session was not without shortcomings. On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Argentina’s sovereign debt restructuring, for example, the Council considered a resolution dubiously claiming that “vulture funds” hinder the capacity of states to fulfill their human rights obligations. On this, the U.S. delegation’s position was clear: “The state’s responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is not contingent on its sovereign debt situation.” Nevertheless, the resolution received the overwhelming support of non-Western members, reflecting the deep-seated divide between the West and “the rest” on matters of economic, social, and cultural rights.

And although no resolutions on Israel were tabled at this session, the hot-button issue is always simmering just beneath the surface. As many U.S. officials have long argued, the Council’s disproportionate focus on Israel remains the single greatest threat to the human rights body’s legitimacy. The United States has pushed—and doubtless will continue pushing—for the removal of the UNHRC’s Israel-specific agenda item. That said, in the absence of peace and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, such efforts will come to no avail. This is not to suggest that Israel’s alleged human rights abuses deserve no scrutiny, but rather that its record should be considered alongside those of all other countries.

More than two years ago, my colleague Stewart M. Patrick wrote that the UNHRC was, despite its improved record, “deeply imperfect.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, that remains true today. Deeply imperfect though it may be, however, the Council is not a lost cause. To the contrary, we should expect the Human Rights Council to remain imperfect. That is precisely why it demands U.S. leadership. The U.S. government’s recent successes at the Council are a testament to the importance of creative diplomacy, long-term commitment, and compromise with countries with which the United States rarely sees eye to eye. Indeed, it is time to recognize what Obama administration officials have claimed for years: the Human Rights Council is at its best when the United States is an active participant, not a detached critic.

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