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"Why the United States Should Continue to Engage the UN Human Rights Council
by Paula Schriefer
A little more than a year after the United States took its seat for the first time as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, debates persist over whether it should have continued the Bush administration’s policy of disengaging from the UN’s primary human rights body. This debate largely revolves around the issue of whether the council is a fundamentally flawed structure, and if so, whether the presence of the United States gives it undue legitimacy.
Freedom House’s own system of rating countries on political rights and civil liberties, with categories of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free, is often used to support the assertion that the council is fundamentally flawed. Critics point out how many countries in the Not Free category are able to win elections to seats on the council and then, not surprisingly, use their positions to shield themselves and their allies from criticism rather than to combat human rights abuses. Metaphors like “foxes guarding the hen house” are frequently invoked—and not altogether unfairly. A second pillar of the flawed-structure argument is the council’s continued disproportionate focus on Israel and the highly biased nature of the resolutions and decisions it has approved regarding that country.
Elections and Membership
As a political body—a body comprised entirely of UN member states—the ability of the Human Rights Council to live up to its mandate to promote and protect human rights is only as strong as the commitment of its members. The composition of the council at any given time therefore plays an important role in determining how well or poorly it deals with pressing human rights issues. Nonetheless, there is not always a clear link between a country’s domestic human rights record and its performance on the council. While the world’s most aggressive abusers of human rights—countries like China, Cuba, and Russia—invest tremendous resources in getting elected to sit on the council, and can be counted on to vote the wrong way on major resolutions and decisions in most instances, the reverse is not always true. In other words, countries with positive domestic records on human rights cannot necessarily be counted on to vote the right way on major resolutions and decisions. Countries in the middle—those with a Partly Free status according to Freedom House—likewise have mixed voting records that are as often swayed by pressure from leaders within regional groups as by human rights considerations.
*2005 represents membership during the final year of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
When it comes to resolutions that should be straightforward from a human rights perspective, such as those condemning human rights violations in North Korea or extending a mandate on Sudan, democracies like Ghana and Indonesia have voted against them, and others like India, South Africa, and South Korea have often abstained. Meanwhile, the composition of the council in terms of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries has been better than the world as a whole in every year since the council was established, until the 2010–2011 cycle, when it fared slightly worse (see chart). Yet the performance of the council in 2010–2011 was by far the best since it was established in 2006 in terms of taking strong actions on countries engaged in egregious abuses. In that year, which coincided with the first-time presence of the United States on the council, solid resolutions were adopted on Burma, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria. Entirely new mandates were created to promote freedom of assembly, prevent discrimination against women, and monitor violations of human rights in Iran.
Such results speak to the fact that the work of influential countries behind the scenes in Geneva and in national capitals to sway votes is of far greater importance than the simple breakdown of the council’s membership in terms of domestic human rights records. They also undermine the idea that an alternative body—a body that includes only democracies with strong human rights records—would necessarily perform better than the council, even if such an entity could be established.
Israel and Impunity for Authoritarians
Freedom House convenes panel on internet freedom at the council in June 2011
There is no question that the UN Human Rights Council spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on human rights violations by Israel, and that the body uses overly harsh and biased language in the resolutions and decisions it adopts regarding Israel. Such resolutions hold Israel solely responsible for human rights abuses while withholding criticism of Palestinian groups in conflicts between the two sides. Israel remains the only country in the world to be the subject of a permanent agenda item at the regular sessions of the council, and it has been the subject of 6 out of the 17 special sessions held to date. (Other special sessions have focused on Sudan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Syria.)
At the same time, a handful of countries with abysmal human rights records continually succeed in escaping scrutiny due to either their strong economic influence or their symbolic leadership in opposition to the Western or developed world. These countries—including notably China, Cuba, and Russia—are all but exempt from condemnatory resolutions and play a leading role in opposing other country-specific resolutions as a matter of principle, and in sponsoring initiatives that run counter to universal values.
Why the Human Rights Council Is Relevant
Despite the presence and influence of countries with very poor human rights records, and despite its biased treatment of Israel, the council remains highly relevant both for its role in setting international norms on human rights and as the world’s only global human rights body. Precisely because countries that are seen as antagonistic toward the Western world and its values can run for and get elected to sit on the council, the body holds a degree of legitimacy that neither a regional organization nor a body established only by the world’s democracies could muster. Moreover, if one truly believes that human rights are universal and not merely the creation of the Western world or a luxury of developed nations, only a global body that is reflective of the world’s political landscape will have the credibility to create standards to which all populations can hold their governments accountable.
What Engagement Has Achieved
Since the Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the Commission on Human Rights, Freedom House and a number of other human rights organizations have called for increased engagement at the council by the United States and other democracies to ensure that the battle over international norms is not tilted in favor of repressive states. The Obama administration responded not only by running for and winning a seat on the council in 2009, but by creating the first-ever U.S. ambassador-level position exclusively devoted to the council.
Paula Schriefer is Director of Advocacy at Freedom House. "