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UN Week – 7/4/2011

July 6, 2011

by John and Douglas Carey, Editors

Contents of this issue: “Principled engagement” by US in UNHRC.

At the Heritage Foundation on May 24th, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel, second in command at the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, known as IO, spoke about US experience in the UN Human Rights Council. Here are some of the highlights.

“We joined the Human Rights Council and took our seats for the first time in September of 2009, and we did so with the stated goal of trying to make the Council more legitimate and more credible. We were very clear-eyed on what the limitations and flaws of the Council were, and to some extent still are, and I will run through what we saw as the principle issues. I would venture that there is a fair amount of agreement as far as what the problems are.

“The first is a persistent, one-sided, unbalanced, and almost obsessive focus on Israel. As demonstrated in a pattern of resolutions that run session after session singling out Israel, it is a stand-alone agenda item that is part of the Council’s official agenda dedicated to Israel, whereas every other country under the UN system is dealt with under a common item. So this is not new to the Council; the UN Human Rights System going back decades has reflected this outsized focus on Israel, but it has certainly been near the top of our list of concerns going in.

“The second issue that I highlight is membership, which is again not an issue new to the council. The Council was created in 2006 as a successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights. The effort at the time was to try to overcome some of the limitations of the Commission, but the Council itself reflects a number of them as well. In terms of membership, the Council has always had within its ranks member states whose own human rights records do not always reflect the kind of respect for human rights that we would like to see, and that flaw remained when we joined the Council.

“And then finally, there has been a failure to come to grips with a range of serious country situations worldwide. At the time we joined the Council, the Council had recently renewed the mandate for the Sudan mechanism by just one vote, so nearly half the Council was ready to abolish that mechanism. It had a special session looking at Sri Lanka at a time when the government was perpetrating mass abuses that now have been more fully documented, but at the time, they passed a very soft resolution in places praising the government of Sri Lanka at a time when it deserved condemna-tion. Then, right before we joined, the Council took no action in response to the crackdown after the Iranian election. So there has been this persistent failure to come to grips with country situations in a credible way. “It is important to understand that these flaws were manifested in the council, but they reflect the viewpoints of the countries represented there, and the representation of the Council reflects the makeup of the world. If you look at the Freedom House Index of which countries are considered “free,” “partially free,” and “not free,” the makeup of the council is very much a parallel of that, of the world at large. So when you see these anti-Israel tendencies, the tendency is to look the other way at serious abuses that manifested in Geneva at the Human Rights Council, but those positions originate in capitals worldwide, so you cannot separate the two.

“When we joined the Council, we focused on four different goals. The first I would highlight is deepening the Council’s engagement in country situations. The second is taking concrete steps to drive key thematic human rights priorities. The third is defending core principles and values, and the fourth is setting a standard for principled engagement and being an example to other countries. And I will talk briefly about what we have done in each area before turning it over to my colleagues. * * *

“We started somewhat modestly, and the first of the two resolutions we worked on focused on the massacre in Guinea, and the second was on the unrest and violence in Kyrgyzstan last spring. In both cases, we were able to work with transitional forces in the countries in question and get them to recognize the importance of facing up to the abuses and pursuing accountability of the Council. Both of those resolutions passed by consensus, and that set a foundation that has enabled us to take on even more serious and more controversial situations.

“We initiated the special session to look at the crisis in Cote-D’Ivoire in December that resulted in a very strong condemnatory resolution on the Gbagbo regime. We at the end of February were instrumental in the Council’s special session on Libya, which resulted in a condemnation of the Gaddafi government and the dispatch of a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuses there. That resolution passed by consensus of the Human Rights Council on a Friday, the following day. Libya was taken up by UN Security Council, and there was an unprecedented resolution condemning of the Gaddafi government and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. It is hard to ignore the consensus coming out of Geneva, out of this historically fractious body; the fact that that body was able to come together set the stage for the action that was taken in New York the following day.

“We then, during the March situation, took on a country that I know all of us for a long time felt needed to be addressed, which is Iran, and we were able to create the Council’s first new special rapporteur to focus on abuses in Iran. * * * Only seven countries sided with the Iranians to vote against this resolution, despite a very active lobbying campaign that the Tehran regime mounted to try and thwart this effort. So it was a very powerful message to Tehran.

“Just last month, we initiated a special session on Syria, and in a timely way, in response to mounting abuses in Dara, got the Council to step forward to condemn those abuses to dispatch a fact-finding mission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to look at the situation in Syria. So we have really stepped up the pace of the Council’s ability to react to serious country situations; particularly, I would highlight those three: Libya, Iran, and Syria, in a three-month period. So that is a sea change for the council, and these resolutions have all resulted in concrete, ongoing action, be it in the form of a special rapporteur to look at the situation year-round and shine a spotlight, or commissions of inquiry to investigate abuses and create foundations for accountability. * * *

“On thematic priorities, we initiated the first-ever resolution on freedom of assembly and association, which is an issue of high priority to us in response to the global crackdown on civil society and non-governmental organizations and the increasing number of countries that have passed re-strictive legislation shrinking the space for civil society, forcing registration requirements, and targeting human rights defenders. * * *

“We reject Israel’s exclusion from the regional groups in the Council. We fought for their inclusion and were able to secure Israel’s membership in one of the important consultative groups in Geneva. We also advocated the appointment of Israel’s first UN Special Procedures Mandate Holder, an expert who is now a member of that committee we have established on laws that discriminate against women. So we have worked to advance Israel’s inclusion. * * *

“Another core issue or principale we have focused on heavily is something called ‘defamation of religion.’ This is a resolution that the Islamic Conference has promoted and passed twice a year for the last ten years, and it is a resolution we have always rejected on the basis that it tries to address the problem of insults to religion– things like the Danish cartoons, the burn the Koran incident, and other inflammatory statements about religion– through bans on speech, punishment of speech and restrictions on freedom of expression. That is an approach we reject based on our First Amendment and our own national law and also based on international human rights law and its protection of freedom of expression.

“We have tackled this issue head on through a two-pronged approach. One side of it was working very hard on outreach to countries around the world who value freedom of expression to say that even though you’ve supported this resolution in the past, we want to point out why it is problematic and why it is so inconsistent with international human rights values. We asked these countries to pull away from the resolution and many of them did, so the margin of victory for this resolution began to narrow.

“We also, at the same time, reached out to the Islamic Conference and said that we appreciate some of the underlying feelings of vulnerability that some religious groups have. But we are adamant that the way to address that is not through restrictions and prohibitions on freedom of speech.

“Through intensive dialogue in March, I am happy to say that for the first time in ten years the Islamic Conference pulled their resolution. The defamation of religions resolution did not run for the first time, and instead they put forward a consensus resolution that we were able to sign along with the entire European Union, that stressed the kinds of measures that have worked in this country to address religious intolerance: things like education, dialogue, enforcement of civil rights laws and hate crimes laws. So they really changed their track quite dramatically and we were able to put to rest a very divisive and pernicious agenda. * * *

“We also took the unprecedented step in late February of suspending Libya’s membership on the Council. The Council, unlike the Commission, has a provision whereby countries’ memberships can be suspended by a vote of the General Assembly. We played a leading role in passing a Geneva resolution calling for that suspension and getting the suspension through in New York. * * *

“We have also taken the lead in stepping up our engagement and dialogue with emerging powers. What we recognize is that the Council is a key place where countries that are playing a growing role on the world’s stage come to understand and interpret the importance of their human rights obligations and the obligation of other emerging powers in terms of their human rights records and the actions of others.

“You have, for example, countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa that are, for the first time, really acting as leaders in responding to the human rights situation in their regions and around the globe. We have initiated sustained dialogue with these countries. We travel to capitals, we sit down with them ahead of HRC sessions, we review all of the agenda items we have, and we hear from them and explain why we are approaching things the way that we do. I think, as a result, we have seen as a result of that some really significant changes in terms of how countries are voting. The size of the majorities we have been able to pull together for some of the country resolutions really reflects, albeit incomplete, still significant migration in a positive direction, particularly among some of these emerging leaders whose influence goes beyond their own borders. * * *

“Our view is that by absenting ourselves, by abdicating our position, we would be leaving this debate in the hands of others whose perspectives we don’t agree with, who would not defend those core principles, who would not work to advance those priorities, and who would not put the spotlight on those serious situations. Instead, their actions would nonetheless reverberate around the world and would reflect international opinion and would often be perceived as international consensus. So, in our view, U.S. participation, the role we play, and the influence we have, are essential.”

That’s all for this July 4th issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Meantime, send along your own views on these or other UN-related issues to

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