Reflections on the 31st Session of the Human Rights Council

Posted by Erin M. Barclay
March 31, 2016
The opening of the 31st Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, February 29, 2016. [US Mission Geneva Photo/ Eric Bridiers]

When President Obama decided the United States would seek election to the Human Rights Council in 2009, he invested in the idea that sustained American leadership could and would redirect the Council’s focus toward its central purpose -- the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. 

Over the next seven years, that investment has yielded considerable dividends, with U.S. leadership proving central to an evolving Human Rights Council that has become a more responsive, credible, and influential international body. That credibility was very much in evidence at the recently concluded session of 31st the Council. 

From North Korea to South Sudan, this session shed intense new light on continuing gross violations of human rights. For example, we were pleased to cosponsor the resolution on human rights in the North Korea that established a panel of experts to explore appropriate approaches for accountability. This consensus resolution sends a clear signal to leaders who rule with impunity that they will ultimately be held to account for systematic violations of human rights.

On South Sudan, the United States helped create a new mechanism, a three-expert Commission to monitor the country’s absolutely deplorable human rights situation.  

The United States was also proud to have been a member of the core groups that renewed the Commission of Inquiry in Syria and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran.

These important actions, and many others, underscore the Council’s positive and continuing evolution. To be sure, there is distance yet to travel. For example, we were disappointed to see the return of unhelpful and discredited procedural tactics including the dreaded “no action motion,” which opponents used, unsuccessfully, to try to halt action on the Iran resolution. 

We also remain deeply troubled with the Council’s persistent bias against Israel -- a bias that rears its ugly head every year in the form of several “Agenda Item 7” actions designed to isolate and attack Israel through one-sided resolutions. While the number of Israel-focused resolutions fell considerably during the United States' tenure on the Council, all such instances of bias must be ended. During the 31st Council, we were especially disturbed by the resolution calling on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to implement a database of businesses operating in settlements. This is an unprecedented step taken by the Council and is deeply concerning as the call for such a database is far outside the Council’s scope of authority and will be an enormous drain on its resources.

The United Nations Human Rights Council celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. In spite of the Council's remaining flaws, including the fact that nations with abysmal human rights records are able to run for seats on the Council, there is much to laud. Today, the Council is more attentive to country-specific crises than ever before, more active in reinforcing fundamental freedoms, and more vocal in defending those who take risks to promote human rights in their respective communities.   

About the Author: Deputy Assistant Secretary Erin M. Barclay is a career member of the Senior Executive Service and oversees the Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and Regional Policy and Coordination sections of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the U.S. State Department.

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