The U.S. Government’s Relationship with the United Nations Human Rights Council

In testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Ted Piccone discusses the key question of how U.S. engagement at the UN Human Rights Council supports its fundamental goals of advancing international peace and security.

I commend the Commission for calling this timely hearing as a way to ensure the Congress develops a balanced and accurate record regarding United States relations with the United Nations. It is critical, in my view, to recognize that positive U.S. engagement with the UN, as we’ve seen over the last two years, pays real dividends for U.S. taxpayers and deserves Congress’ full support.

For today’s session, I would like to focus my comments on the key question of how U.S. engagement at the UN Human Rights Council supports its fundamental goals of advancing international peace and security.

I come to this question from nearly two decades of experience in government, NGO advocacy and research on democracy and human rights. In this regard, I recently completed an 18-month Brookings study on the important contribution the UN’s independent human rights experts make to promoting universal values and hereby request that the report be submitted for the record.

Since the UN’s founding, the United States has been a leader in shaping the world’s standards on human rights and the architecture to defend them. We have taken on this cause not only because it reflects our most cherished values but also because we have learned that a world in which human dignity and basic freedoms are respected is a world in which peace and prosperity prevail and that this serves our vital national interests.

Recent dramatic events in the Arab world remind us that people everywhere yearn for the same basic rights we enjoy. The United States, working directly and through international institutions like the UN, must be prepared, in good times and bad, to help people realize their basic human rights and in turn achieve democratic stability.

The United States pursues these goals in a number of ways, including through the UN’s Human Rights Council, the only global forum on human rights. Despite its imperfections, the Council is the place where states convene to debate, construct and monitor universal human rights norms and where activists come to demand their rights.

We cannot escape that reality by walking away, opening the field to regimes that seek to hide their abuses from international scrutiny and abandoning victims who look to the UN for help. Nor would a self-appointed group of states have the legitimacy to bind other states to the universal rights we hope all peoples will enjoy some day.

We know from past experience that walking away doesn’t work. During negotiations to create the Council in 2005, the United States chose a combative approach, getting just three other states to vote with us. The United States then decided to withdraw from the Council’s work in its critical formative years, leaving a vacuum that was quickly filled by such countries as Musharraf’s Pakistan and Mubarak’s Egypt. Israel was left without a traditional ally as it faced five special sessions while the United States was absent. Since we joined the Council, Israel has been the subject of only one special session. In addition, since the U.S. became a member, the Council has doubled the number of country specific resolutions and cut in half the percentage of such resolutions focused on Israel.

This year’s remarkable UN action on Libya is another example of the impact that constructive U.S. engagement has had in turning things around. U.S. leadership helped pave the way for the consensus resolution condemning Gaddafi’s actions, and demanding Libya be removed from the Council, an unprecedented step adopted by the General Assembly in record time. Now, with Gaddafi gone, we can legitimately claim that U.S. leadership at the UN made the difference.

Many more examples of the fruits of U.S. leadership at the Council testify to the value of staying engaged—special sessions on Syria and Cote d’Ivoire; new mandates on freedom of assembly, discrimination against women and Iran; a path-breaking decision to address LGBT rights; defeat of the pernicious defamation of religions concept; and continued scrutiny of Burma, Sudan, Somalia and North Korea.
The lesson learned is clear—cutting and running only allows our adversaries more room to control the results while direct participation protects and advances our interests and those of our allies.

In the last few years the Council, again with U.S. support, has expanded the number of independent experts appointed to examine specific human rights challenges around the world. As I found from my own research, these experts have had demonstrable impact in promoting human rights at the national level. Their country visits help human rights defenders mobilize advocacy, give voice and protection to victims, call attention to problems and remedies, and influence state behavior.

They have influence because they are independent of governments, yet work under the UN flag. Frontline activists tell me they rely on them to get heard at the highest levels of power and to get real results. One of the main hurdles they face is increasing pressure from certain member states to constrain and intimidate them. As a Council member, the United States has played a key role in successfully pushing back against these attempts. These experts deserve much more support and resources to do their job effectively.

While much attention is paid to the unfortunate fact that some states with egregious human rights records are elected to the Council, there is another, more positive side of the story. In every case when elections have been competitive, rights-abusers have lost—Venezuela, Iran, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan. And thanks to a vigorous but quiet U.S. campaign, both Iran and Syria were forced to withdraw as candidates for election to the Council in the last two years.

I know from my own personal experience of working with human rights advocates in many of those countries that the elections process is an effective tool for keeping at least some bad governments off the Council. It is critical that the United States remain engaged in this effort and that competitive slates become the norm.

The Council continues to be challenged by the lack of political will to fully carry out its mandate. One way to address this problem is to get democratic governments like Brazil, India, South Africa and Indonesia to carry their weight at the Council. The U.S., by working from within the Council and through direct diplomacy in capitals, is pressuring these states to do better, and this is starting to work.

I commend the State Department for appointing a dynamic Ambassador to Geneva and a top notch team to lead the bureau responsible for UN affairs, ensuring human rights is integrated fully into our multilateral and bilateral diplomacy. It would also be helpful if Congress would weigh in directly with their counterparts in these countries to remind them of their governments’ obligations to uphold the highest standards of human rights.

In short, we should not let perfection be the enemy of the good. In no international endeavor will the United States get its way all of the time. But with the right combination of talent, resources and political support, it can win the fight for human rights more often than not, as we’ve clearly seen since the U.S. joined the Council. This is a good news story of the power of U.S. engagement and deserves more congressional support in order to build upon the momentum of these past two years.