With one week to go before elections here in the United States UN Dispatch, On Day One, Chasing the Flame and Humanitarian Relief are joining forces to talk human rights. Everyday this week a distinguished group of panelists will respond to an On Day One user generated prompt about a human rights idea the next president can adopt, figuratively, on day one. Our panelists include:
Eric Schwartz, Suzanne Nossel, and David Kaye respond below the fold. Eric Schwartz:
The Human Rights Council — and its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission — cannot be Human Rights Watch; nor can it be Human Rights First or even Amnesty International. If you want a pristine human rights institution that does not suffer from politicization, then you want something other than an intergovernmental human rights organization. And while we can try to ensure that the Human Rights Council is composed primarily of governments that respect human rights, it is probably inevitable that the Council will include governments that do not particularly welcome international scrutiny. But that’s hardly a reason to walk away from the exercise. The international laws on human rights — and their affiliated institutions — help to legitimate standards internationally and provide a key tool for worldwide advocacy. That is precisely why dictators and despots spend so much time and energy trying to thwart and distort the human rights mission. The answer is not to leave the field to the other side, as the current administration has done, but for the United States to engage smartly and comprehensively in the Council. Of course, a key element to a successful and effective strategy is to demonstrate to our friends, allies and adversaries that the United States is prepared to practice at home what we preach abroad. Thankfully, both major presidential candidates have made important commitments to move in this direction — for example, by renouncing torture and other mistreatment of detainees — which will only enhance the effectiveness of U.S. diplomatic efforts at the Council.
The US should reverse course and join the Council, but in doing so must not throw up its hands and simply accept that body’s manifest flaws, including its disproportionate focus on Israel and relative inattention to grave human rights abuses in Burma, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. It should reengage in the Council with the aim of, over time, using diplomatic channels and collective initiative to build the HRC into a credible and effective forum for the protection of human rights. It won’t be easy. As Eric points out, the torture and mistreatment of detainees and the abuses at Abu Ghraib have undercut Washington’s credibility as a voice for human rights. The US’s absence from the HRC table in recent years has further weakened its influence. Before it can exert a positive influence on the Council, the US will have to get its own house in order, in particular by enacting laws that ensure the protection of the rights of detainees and terrorism suspects. The US cannot arrive at the Council as a chiding critic; many Council members would just as soon the US not join and remain marginalized – a demanding or presumptuous American approach will only reinforce such perceptions. If it hopes to shape the debate, the US delegation will need to listen to other points of view and diplomatically state its own. The US will need to work behind-the-scenes, delegation-by-delegation to explain its views, persuade others on the merits of its positions, and unravel the rigid bloc politics that so often stymie UN debates. With an energetic ambassador and team, this approach can succeed. There is a great deal at stake; while the HRC has done some credible work – for example commencing country-by-country examinations of the human rights records of every member – there have also been steps backward. The Council has moved to limit the authority of the UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights and to encroach on the autonomy of the body’s well-regarded special rapporteurs who are deployed to investigate specific country situations. These moves risk setting back the cause of human rights protection globally. The US needs to get back in the mix to push the Human Rights Council to fulfill rather than thwart its own mandate.
Eric and Suzanne make crucial points: we should engage in the Council and aim to improve its manifest flaws. I’m not sure we will maximize our influence, however, by joining ‘on day one’ (not that they are making such an argument). First priority is, as they note, rolling back Bush Administration policies on detainees, interrogation, etc. But that isn’t the end of it; we should demonstrate a broad commitment to reengagement by ratifying a number of human rights treaties that have either sat in the Senate for years or not been submitted. These include CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of the Child — and even the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions. And there are others. In short, our ability to serve as more than just another voice in the Council depends on broad reengagememt in the human rights world. This also means, of course, that the responsibility to engage belongs not only with the next President but also the next Senate — and to that extent, renengagement will have to be a national effort.