When the Obama administration decided to reengage with the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2009, it did so with open eyes. Despite having only been established in 2006, the Council was already off to a disappointing start, unfairly targeting Israel and refusing to confront seriously human rights issues in other countries. Like they had at the widely discredited UN Human Rights Commission before it, regional groupings protected their own bad actors against scrutiny and action by the Human Rights Council, and put forward candidates for membership with questionable human rights practices, at best.
In the years since the United States joined, the Council has dramatically improved its track record in carrying out its fundamental mission of protecting and promoting human rights around the globe. While it remains an imperfect body -- with many states with poor human rights records among its members and a persistent (though diminished) bias against Israel -- the Council is now shining a light on the worst violations of human rights, including in places such as Syria, North Korea, Sudan, and Iran, and helping create space for civil society to hold governments to account. There is no doubt that U.S. leadership and diplomatic muscle have contributed to this dramatic change in orientation and performance, and to sustain this trajectory, on October 28 the United States will seek re-election to the Council.
Since we joined the Council, it has increasingly focused on the most pressing human rights situations, shifting from its previous, almost singular focus on Israel. In 2008, the year before the United States joined the Council, 75 percent of the Council’s country-specific resolutions were directed against Israel; today such resolutions represent roughly 20 percent of the total. This percentage and the Council’s standing agenda item on Israel remain unacceptable but the United States has driven important progress.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council March 2, 2016. [U.S. Mission to UN Agencies in Geneva]
We can also measure the success of the Human Rights Council by the real-world change that its actions support. Take Sri Lanka, for example. Before our arrival, the Council was on the wrong side of the conflict in Sri Lanka, passing a resolution that effectively congratulated the Sri Lankan government for actions that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. With U.S. and like-minded leadership, the Council adopted a more critical approach to events in Sri Lanka, aimed at addressing serious concerns and promoting accountability. When national elections in 2015 ushered in new political leadership in Sri Lanka, the UN was well positioned to help support an internationally sanctioned transitional justice process acceptable to the Sri Lankan people and the government.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with the international media at the United Nations Office at Geneva March 2 after delivering the U.S. national statement before the United Nations Human Rights Council. [U.S. Mission to UN Agencies in Geneva]
North Korea is another important example. The Council’s authorization of a Commission of Inquiry led to a ground-breaking, comprehensive report on human rights violations that captured the attention of international community. The commission documented shocking details of the North Korean regime’s sophisticated system of abuse, ranging from abductions and arbitrary detention to torture, and marked by deliberate starvation and other “unspeakable atrocities.” Thanks to the Council’s action, North Korea’s human rights violations were fully exposed to the world, universally condemned, and are now reviewed on a regular basis by the UN Security Council, marking the first time the Security Council had taken up the question of human rights in North Korea.
Activists, victims and UN investigators, including Michael Kirby, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on the DPRK, spoke today at the Human Rights Council on atrocities committed by the North Korean government. [US Mission to the UN Agencies in Geneva Photo]
The United States has also worked vigorously through the Human Rights Council to ensure that the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons are protected as part of our broader effort to promote human rights. At this year’s June session, the Council took a decisive and historic step in creating an Independent Expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This new mandate, co-sponsored by the United States, will ensure regular reporting to the Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly on LGBTI issues and will create a mechanism for countries to access technical assistance and best practices to protect LGBTI persons.
In a historic vote, the Human Rights Council voted June 30 to create the first UN Independent Expert dedicated to investigate and report on human rights abuses against LGBT people around the world. The expert will work to combat and prevent violence, hatred and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The initiative was led by Latin American countries including core sponsors Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay. [U.S. Mission to UN Agencies in Geneva/Eric Bridiers — with Wanelisa Xaba at United Nations Office at Geneva]
The vigorous debates at the Human Rights Council in recent years -- from action on LGBTI rights and human rights defenders to country-specific situations -- underscore the challenges we face in sustaining progress against sometimes-fierce resistance. Members of the Council represent widely divergent interests, with some openly opposing fundamental rights and civil society. Such opposition reinforces our determination to use the Council to hold violators accountable and expand the shared commitment to the human rights values we as Americans sometimes take for granted.
As we seek re-election to the Human Rights Council, we do so with recognition of its persistent weaknesses, but also of its tremendous potential for advancing human rights around the world. Our engagement can ensure that the progress we have achieved is sustained. The United States will continue its assertive support for fundamental rights and will hold this UN body to the highest standards -- standards rooted in the bedrock values of our nation and the belief that international peace, security, and prosperity are strengthened when human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected and protected.