Human rights are at the very heart of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy, and the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which drew to a close Friday, offered proof both of the positive impact of U.S. multilateral engagement, and of the growing importance of the UN’s primary human rights body.
I arrived in Geneva to take up my position as U.S. Representative to the Council just as the session was opening, and over the next three weeks marked important achievements including action on some of the most pressing human rights situations in the world today, including Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Belarus. We joined our partners in strong statements on discrimination and violence against women. We defended fundamental freedoms online through a forward-looking resolution on Internet Freedom. We took a stand to ensure that human rights defenders from Eritrea, Venezuela and Cuba were able to speak at the United Nations, despite efforts by their own countries to silence them.
The U.S. delegation to the Human Rights Council has one central objective: to protect and promote the universal human rights of individuals, and we take our engagement at the HRC extremely seriously. At the same time, we are realistic. The Council has structural flaws that cannot be overlooked: these include the membership of countries with poor human rights records, and an anti-Israel bias. Some members of the Council do not want the world to act to address horrific human rights situations, even resorting to procedural manipulation.
We were disappointed this session when a discredited tactic from the past -- the “No Action Motion” -- unfortunately reared its ugly head again. During a discussion of the “Protection of the Family” resolution, a group of nations used this administrative trick to effectively block HRC members from even discussing the inclusion of non-traditional families -- such as the single-parent household where my mom raised my brothers and me. Existing UN definitions include the full range of families -- including those involving single-parents, AIDS orphans raised by extended families, or same-sex couples and their children. The United States and its partners will not abide any narrowing of that definition.
Such unprincipled “no-action” maneuvering is disheartening. But it will not divert us from our true focus: the real and often heart-breaking situations of individuals who have suffered torture, unlawful detention and other forms of abuse, and the struggle of those who seek greater freedom in their societies.
The brutal conflict in Syria was, of course, a focus throughout the session. On the opening day we were shown photographic evidence of mass torture, starvation, abuse and murder in Assad’s detention centers, and heard directly from survivors. One young, courageous woman described being tortured by electrical shock and hung by her wrists for 12-hours at a time. Another victim recalled the dying moments of a fellow prisoner, who wanted to be reassured that he would somehow see his daughter again. The comprehensive body of evidence gathered by the Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the horrific photos recently revealed in the Caesar report, are a call to action to the world community that the perpetrators of these atrocities must be held accountable.
Empowering women and girls is one of the most powerful tools for affecting lasting improvements in the human rights situations on the ground. For the first time at the Council, a plenary panel was devoted to examining the profound issues surrounding early and forced marriage, and another panel led by Burkina Faso’s First Lady discussed ending Female Genital Mutilation. The dynamic group of women Ambassadors at the Council organized a special panel on women’s economic empowerment. I am proud that at this session, the United States led the way on a 35-nation joint statement urging the United Nations to focus greater attention on the problem of violence against indigenous women and girls.
Although I have only been in Geneva for a month, I have found that the most powerful tool we wield at the Human Rights Council is information – the ability to bring into stark focus the realities of injustice and abuse in the world. Our work casts light on the darkest situations on our planet, and ensures we cannot avert our gaze or say “we did not know.” Reporting to the Council provides the basis for informed decision-making, and, as in the case of Syria, can provide a significant body of evidence for future accountability. The threat of public condemnation can have a real impact, leading to the release of political prisoners, changes in legislation or cooperation with the UN to facilitate long-term improvements on the ground. In short, the United Nations Human Rights Council is making a difference.
About the Author: Ambassador Keith M. Harper serves as the Representative of the United States to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
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