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19 July 2017
Felice Gaer's Keynote Remarks: Whither the UN and Human Rights? Why 2017 Matters
The UN Charter, adopted in 1945, mentioned human rights 5 times. It also mandated a Commission on Human Rights as a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council -- the only such ECOSOC body mentioned by name in the Charter.  The United States served as the first Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which first met in 1946. The US was a member of that body for all but one of its 60 years in existence.

Importance of Human Rights to the US and the US to Human Rights

The US role in the struggle to promote international human rights has been unique. The US has been a leader and a fighter – for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 and other achievements to enshrine the universality of human rights for all. The US was the principal mover behind the creation of the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993.  Until now, it has been the largest contributor of voluntary funds to the Office of the High Commissioner as well.

Americans view respect for human rights of every person as a defining feature of political life. Since the 1970s, the quest for human rights has been given a significant role in American foreign policy.

That role, and the UN body foremost in pressing to advance human rights (the Human Rights Council), are now under threat. The threat is more than the usual one  which comes from rights violating countries seeking to neglect, minimize, distort and defuse human rights standards and measures to protect those rights.  The current threat is from the United States – which threatens to leave the Council, not to lead it. Abandonment of the Council by the United States would guarantee that human rights would shrink on the world stage; that human rights would shrink within the United Nations; and that mechanisms and states would pay a phony lip service to human rights, which would be distorted to protect ‘sovereignty’ not citizens; religions not the individuals who are adherents to the religions; the right to abuse your citizens in the name of the general population and not the protection of  individual rights against the state.  Scrutiny of gross violator countries would decline, and the UN would isolate rights in a Geneva based body rather than mainstream it throughout the UN system and the world writ large.

The UN Human Rights System

Let’s step back for a moment and consider what has been constructed in and through the United Nations to promote and protect human rights:

  1. The Human Rights Council has replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006. It’s a political body like the Commission, and it sets standards, authorizes investigations, criticizes countries for rights violations, and has established, most notably, an array of independent expert mechanisms, called special procedures, (special rapporteurs and independent experts) to investigate thematic issues in human rights –like torture, religious intolerance, freedom of association and expression, violence against women- as well as country situations, and to respond to urgent cases of abuse, and report publicly on its findings. It has also established a Universal Periodic Review system through which every country in the world is up for peer review once every 4 ½ years; that system is still in its formative stages.
  2. A ‘treaty body system” of 10 committees of independent experts to monitor compliance with 9 major human rights treaties. Every country in the world is party to at least one of these treaties and the scrutiny now extends to   individual complaints under the treaties as well.
  3. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva, which now involves the High Commissioner,  2 ASGs, one in Geneva and one in New York, and  over 1000 staff members based throughout the world, often in country-specific monitoring missions. Some missions are authorized by the Security Council as parts of peacekeeping missions. Others are in country teams under the leadership of UN development programs. 

This is a far cry from the ‘conference room’ diplomacy of decades past.

The Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 after a recommendation from then-SG Kofi Annan who criticized the Commission as having lost credibility due in part to politicization and a lack of professionalism.

The US did not initially join the Human Rights Council and its record in its first several years was dreadful: several key mechanisms were eliminated (special rapporteurs/experts on Iran, Belarus, Cuba ) and the well-honed anti-Israel bias was increased such that some 80-100% of early country resolutions were all and only against Israel.

During the Obama Administration, the US ran for election to the Council in 2009, and was elected twice; sat out a mandatory gap year; and was elected again to a 3 year term beginning in 2017—this year.

The Trump Administration has argued that the Council must reform if the US is to remain a member, even though it has a 3 year term ahead of it.  

Arguments against staying in the Council are:  The Council has performed badly, is severely politicized, and lacks credibility –like its predecessor. Its membership includes some gross violators who shouldn’t be there; it hasn’t condemned some of the world’s worst violator countries ; and it has a structural and actual bias against Israel that is unfair and inappropriate, making it clear that the Council “is flawed” and making the UN look ridiculous.

Ambassador Nikki Haley said the Council members are ‘corrupt.’ She said she would go to the Council to ‘put them on notice’ in June – and she recently made that trip. There, she called on the Council members to make reforms : 

a) to identify and condemn gross violators starting with Venezuela

b) to reform membership of the Council by ending the practice of ‘clean slates’, to require competitive elections; to ensure all votes are open, not secret ballots; etc. &

c) to end agenda item 7 which singles out Israel for routine condemnation, alone among all states in the world. This has results in more than 70 resolutions condemning Israel in the Council’s 11 year history and, she complained, only 7 on Iran. Her proposal is to merge item 7 into item 4 where violations in any part of the world are considered.

Has the US Presence on the Council made a difference on performance on country-specific resolutions and on treatment of Israel?

Yes it has—Our assessment, presented in Gamechanger: the US at the UN HR Council, is that US participation has brought results in key US priority area, but further reforms are necessary and achievable, and that US interests incl w respect to Israel would not be served by a US withdrawal from the world body.

  1. US presence has resulted in scrutiny of many of the world’s worst human rights violators - 

A key accomplishment is an increase in the number of country-specific human rights monitors (“Special Procedures”) designated by the Council, from eight in 2009 to 13 in 2017.The US has also led efforts at the Council calling for independent examinations of human-rights violations perpetrated by egregious violator countries and terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State (Daesh).This improved performance of the Council can be seen in  March 2017,when,  with strong American support, it adopted stand-alone resolutions on Syria, North Korea, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), South Sudan and Libya.

2. The Council has  promoted universal human rights principles as a result of US engagement

Moreover, US leadership at the Council has ensured that it reaffirms important universal human-rights principles, among them freedom of assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of religion or belief.  American leadership has also mobilized the Council to rebuff attacks on human-rights norms launched by its worst members. During the period of US membership, the Council ended a longstanding series of resolutions titled “defamation of religions,” which justified states’ use of anti-blasphemy laws; rejected challenges to resolutions calling for the protection of human-rights defenders; and defeated attempts to carve out exceptions to a resolution condemning terrorism.

3.     US participation has improved the HRC’s treatment of Israel

Notwithstanding years of US efforts to promote change, the Council continues to devote an exceedingly disproportionate amount of its attention to condemning Israel’s human-rights record. No country has ever been subjected to more resolutions than Israel in any single year since the Council began, in 2006. No other country is the focus of a stand-alone item on the Council’s agenda. Yet the degree of the Council’s bias against Israel has lessened over time: from 2006 to 2008, when the US was not a member, Israel was condemned in more than half (17 of 33) of all the country-specific resolutions adopted. As a result of US efforts to increase the number of other countries that the Council scrutinizes, the five resolutions it passed on Israel in 2016 represented 19 percent of the country-specific resolutions it adopted during the year. The US and its allies have also repeatedly signaled that it is inappropriate for the Council to maintain a stand-alone agenda item on Israel.

4.     The Council’s membership is more rights-respecting as a result of US membership/leadership

Today, the rights records of the members of the Human Rights Council generally outperform the average for countries in their regional groups, with more countries ranked “free” by the Freedom House organization, which measures civil and political rights worldwide, and fewer “not free” countries than might be expected for Council members from all regions of the globe, except for Latin America.

None of the world’s nine worst human-rights offenders, as ranked by Freedom House through a scoring measure (Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, Somalia, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea), has ever been elected to the Council. This is no small achievement, as Syria, Eritrea and Somalia obtained membership on the Human Rights Council’s predecessor institution, the UN Commission on Human Rights.

While Belarus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran and Zimbabwe were also members of the former Commission, they have not been elected to the Human Rights Council; although several have tried, they were blocked.

Of course, US efforts did not prevent countries — such as Venezuela and Cuba — from obtaining membership on the Council, where they, like several other states with poor rights records, some of whose candidacies were not opposed by the US, have sought to shield themselves and their allies from scrutiny.

In sum: US has been a game-changer and ongoing participation and commitment to reform could bring significant improvements.

The future? 

US foreign policy interests can be best served by the US remaining as a member of the Council and redoubling its reform efforts, for the following reasons:

1.     Engagement is not endorsement but an opportunity to promote change

2.     Key decisions will be made in 2017 – there is a new Secretary-General, financial limits are affecting OHCHR, Haley’s reform requests (the Netherlands organized a join tstatement of 48 countries on needed reforms for the HRCouncil), there will be a 2020 review of Treaty Bodiess; Council reform will be a subject for review in 2021? – So timing of action this year is critical

3.     Membership in the Council can advance core US interests – especially  human rights policy and principles
    • Cuba transition/ Venezuela transition/ Belarus/ Uzbekistan/Turkmenistan others
    • Stand up for American and universal values  (e.g., women’s equality; Freedom of Association)
    • Advance and protect universality of rights from growing threats
    • Promote development of remedies for rights violations
    • Advance HR at ground level
    • Reestablish negotiating control on key thematic resolutions
4.     An opportunity to challenge bad actors

5.     An opportunity for US leadership


Decisions made this year will shape the work and character of human rights for years to come – will affect country specific scrutiny, future of special procedures, protection of human rights defenders, and NGOs.

Thus the US should be an active member of the UN Human Rights Council.