The U.N. and Human Rights: More than Politics

Sixty-two years ago this week, thanks to U.S. leadership, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, launching a set of principles and tools that has made the world safer for American values. Yet, the United Nations human rights system continues to take some serious flack in U.S. domestic politics. It is time to take another look from the perspective of human rights defenders on the ground.

Originally created under Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership to help deter repetition of World War II atrocities, the U.N.’s human rights work fell victim to Cold War rivalries. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a growing number of states with bad human rights records sought seats to shield themselves from scrutiny while simultaneously attacking U.S. and Israeli human rights records, drawing heavy criticism here at home. As a result, and despite some achievements, the old Commission on Human Rights was abolished in 2006 and replaced by a new Human Rights Council, including a new peer review process that all states undergo once every four years. Disappointed by the results, the Bush administration disengaged entirely from the new body. President Obama, on the other hand, saw value in returning to the council and trying to strengthen it from within.

Now, as Republicans prepare to run the House of Representatives, expect to see criticism of the council’s work on human rights move up a notch or two. Opponents of the Obama administration’s engagement policy say it’s time to call it quits and withdraw from the council after just two years of U.S. membership. They bristle to see the United States face peer examination of its human rights record by such states as Cuba and Iran, for example, even as they and other states like China and Russia submit to unprecedented exposure themselves. This myopic focus misses the mark. As governments take stock of the council’s first five years, it is crucial to consider how this body actually promotes and protects human rights for the victims it is designed to defend, instead of focusing solely on the political machinations in Geneva.

One of the council’s primary yet undervalued instruments of human rights promotion is its independent experts who investigate human rights situations on the ground and report back to the U.N. Currently, more than forty of these independent experts are working on human rights themes like the prevention of torture, violence against women, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. An additional eight individuals examine violations in specific countries like North Korea, Sudan, Burma, and Cambodia.

To fulfill their mandates they conduct field visits to meet with victims, advocates, and government officials; send communications of alleged abuses to governments; issue press statements to call public attention to the problems they witness; and write reports to document their work. These prolific workers, though appointed by the council with input from states and nongovernmental organizations, serve as unpaid volunteers who perform this job on top of their other professional activities. From 2004-08, these experts recorded over 9,000 communications to governments regarding alleged human rights abuses. In 2009 alone, they conducted 73 field visits to 51 countries and prepared more than 150 reports. They have created a remarkable and underutilized public record of human rights policies and abuses from around the globe.

While critics are busy focusing on how many human rights abusers were elected to the council, these experts are in the field defending their victims and thousands of others. In Afghanistan, a U.N. independent expert discovered a prison where women detainees were forced to raise their children without adequate nutrition or healthcare. He secured regular doctor visits and increased the prison’s budget allocation for food.  In Indonesia, a special rapporteur discovered a secret agreement with Malaysia that allowed Indonesian workers to be treated like property, with no ownership over their national identity documents. He persuaded them to toss out the agreement to the immediate benefit of thousands of migrant workers. In Bahrain, prisoners arrested for peaceful protest were released by a pardon after several special rapporteurs sent a joint communication on their behalf.  In Egypt, police officers were tried and prosecuted for torturing someone to death, a result demanded by the U.N.’s independent experts. As we document in the report "Catalysts for Rights," the list goes on and on.

For those who favor the Obama administration’s strategy of engaging the council, supporting and strengthening these independent experts is a no brainer. For those opposed to the council, backing these experts is a tactical way to ensure an international spotlight stays not only on the human rights violations committed by the worst states but on whether these states cooperate with the U.N. human rights system to begin with. This is important because the record of a state’s cooperation with the council is an official criterion for membership on the body, a point that needs to be enforced.

The evidence shows that cooperation by states with the council is uneven, at best. From 2004-08, states failed to respond to 50% of communications from the independent experts and took steps to address allegations in only 18% of cases. These figures vary notably across regional and political groups. Countries in Western and Eastern Europe had considerably better response rates, around 66%, while countries in Africa responded only 30% of the time. In terms of allowing country visits, more than 80% of states in Western and Eastern Europe have issued standing invitations to all the council’s independent experts, while only 10% of countries in Asia and Africa allow the same access. Improving state cooperation with these experts should be a top priority going forward.

As a proactive and constructive player in Geneva, the United States has real opportunities to push for additional reforms at the council that will translate into protection of victims on the ground. Rather than walk away to let the spoilers take the reins, the United States should stay engaged by focusing on strengthening and supporting what we know works. That means making cooperation with the independent experts a serious criterion for membership on the council, expanding resources for their work,  and establishing a system for following up on their recommendations so they can continue to save lives and promote the universal values that make the world safer.