from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

November Surprise: The United States Wins Second Term on UN Human Rights Council

November 13, 2012

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In the wake of the U.S. reelection to the UN Human Rights Council, Ryan Kaminski, the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow, offers his analysis of how the Obama administration can take advantage of this election.

On November 12, the United States won a second term on the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), following a vote by the 193 members of the UN General Assembly. After the much anticipated anonymous-ballot vote, the winners of the regional slate the United States was running on—the Western European and Others Group (WEOG)—also included Ireland and Germany while Greece and Sweden lost. (The United States also won big, coming in first place in the vote count within the WEOG).  As its takes stock of this hard-fought election in the General Assembly, the newly reelected Obama administration should do three things.

First, the administration should acknowledge this was a victory for putting principles into practice. The United States acknowledged early on that it would attempt to set an example for other UN member states specifically by running on a competitive election slate within the WEOG group.  This move, declared Joseph Torsella, U.S. ambassador for UN management and reform, in January 2012 at the Council on Foreign Relations, represented an effort by the United States to try to lead by example with regard to promoting genuinely competitive HRC elections. In fact, during the HRC election last week, the WEOG group represented the only competitive regional state with five countries running for just three spots.

Along similar lines, the United States, plus Sweden, enunciated a firm and unambiguous call against the practice of vote-trading—which some UN delegations euphemistically call, and some even candidly advocate for, “reciprocal arrangements.” The competitive slate as well as U.S. refusal to trade votes meant its election was anything but assured despite the fact that, well, it’s the United States.

The result was a campaign emphasizing democratic values, and the United States remained committed to them all the way up to the vote last Monday. Practically speaking, the fact that a country like the United States was willing to stomach something other than victory probably means other countries will be less fretful about running on genuinely competitive slates in future HRC elections. Ultimately, as the rate of competitive elections increases, it will become more difficult for the worst of the worst of human right violators—think Iran, Syria, and Sudan—to weasel their way onto the Council by running on essentially non-competitive regional slates.

Second, the United States should take a well-deserved victory lap, emphasizing the significance of the Council as the UN’s premier intergovernmental human rights institution as well as the need to continue robust U.S. engagement with the body.  This message should be conveyed not just abroad, but at home as well, and be specifically geared toward the Council’s most vocal and persistent detractors.

Since the United States joined the Council in 2009, the HRC has made remarkable progress, for example: responding to human rights crises in Libya and Syria; passing resolutions on critical country-specific issues such as the human rights situation in Iran; addressing thematic human rights areas like the right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association; and contributing to the success of pioneering resolutions concerning internet freedom and the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender  (LGBT) individuals.

Other than these accomplishments, the United States has worked with delegations on varying social, religious, and cultural perspectives to achieve groundbreaking compromises on issues such as religious intolerance, which replaced previous problematic resolutions focusing on defamation. Last but not least, the United States has also worked strenuously to mitigate the Council’s previous penchant for Israel-bashing, allowing for expanded time and resources for the HRC to address other pertinent challenges. All of this is a far-cry from the previous Human Rights Commission, which the Human Rights Council replaced in 2006, that at one point had Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya as its chair.

None of this progress would have been possible without an efficient and organized approach to both lobby fellow HRC members as well as build bridges among traditional and non-traditional allies. According to former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations and current Amnesty International (USA) executive director, Suzanne Nossel, “The U.S. team’s success stemmed from the tactics it used to rally support for its initiatives, including intensive engagement with various U.S. government and civil society actors, advance planning to determine main priorities and strategies, and the development of deep-rooted, long-term relationships with other council members.”

Finally, the Obama administration should craft a comprehensive and ambitious agenda for its second term on the Council. Particularly, the United States should make maximum use of diplomatic sticks and carrots to ensure the Council not only continues its steady path of progress, but also effectively addresses serious emerging human rights situations and issues as they develop. This means following up on issues like LGBT human rights, the empowerment of women and girls, as well as the HRC’s response to the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Additionally, as countries like China, Cuba, and Russia will soon move off the Council due to term limits, the combined diplomatic, political, and moral leadership of the United States will be all the more impactful in terms of setting the Council’s agenda and helping the body to fulfill its lofty mandate.

Victories in diplomacy are often subtle and difficult to pinpoint, but this one is not. In the wake of its tough reelection fight in the General Assembly, the United States should recognize its campaign as a win for democratic principles, remember what worked in terms of keeping the Council a dynamic body during its first term on the Council, and, finally, apply any such lessons-learned during its second term.

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