Progress at the Human Rights Council

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran an unsigned editorial criticizing the Obama administration’s work at the Human Rights Council.

Yet just as the administration of President George W. Bush seemed to have a counterproductive compulsion to disregard potentially useful multinational forums, President Obama’s ideologues of multilateralism have been determined to rehabilitate the deeply flawed human rights council…The Bush administration concluded that any human rights body to which such governments could gain membership was not worthy of U.S. participation. The Obama administration has spent the past two years trying mightily to prove otherwise. Thanks to its efforts, the council has gotten a little better. But is it really the best vehicle for advancing the cause of human rights?  Our guess is that a few more speeches on Iran by the president and secretary of state, not to mention stronger backing for the Green Movement there, would do a lot more good than a U.N. special rapporteur.

I don’t think anyone will argue that it is the ‘best’ vehicle for advancing human rights–I don’t think there is a single best vehicle for advancing human rights. But in the panoply of human rights advancing vehicles, it is certainly an important and useful one.  A speech or two by the president reflects only the American position on a question of human rights. A resolution at the Human Rights Council reflects broad international consensus. This kind of peer pressure is how the council can be most effective.

Since the Obama administration joined the council with a determination to try and reform it from the inside (as opposed to snipe about it from the benches) there really has been progress.  Illiberal proposals to “ban the defamation of religions” have been stymied; a resolution calling for the decriminalization of same sex relations has been passed; and the candidacies of certain human rights abusing countries like Iran were blocked.

And if Israel is your most important criteria in judging the Human Rights Council, it is worth noting that with the United States on the council, Israel has a very powerful and active ally in its corner.  Indeed, in recent testimony to the U.S. Congress, a professional Israel defender at the Human Rights Council urged the United States to remain in the council to defend Israel.

Also, one of the more routine actions of the council is to appoint special rapporteurs or commissions of inquiry for specific countries or issues. These tend not to receive much attention but they have a solid track record of improving human rights in very tangible and specific ways set out in their mandates.  A recent Brookings Institution report makes the case that these special rapporteurs from the council are, indeed, “catalysts for human rights:”

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.

Finally, it is worth noting the useful role the Council took in setting a course for intervention in Libya.  The first international body to take action on the Libya was the Human Rights Council. It called an emergency session in which it booted Libya from its members. (How it was there in the first place is another story).  That resolution, incidentally, was co-sponsored by Israel and Palestine, and endorsed by several Arab countries.  The Council’s decision was referred to the General Assembly, which voted unanimously to condemn Libya.

This showed that literally the entire world was lined up against Qaddafi.  It provided an important political step that led to the passing of the Security Council resolution about 10 days later.

The council is not perfect. But it is useful and has provided an important venue for the advancement of human rights. That is why groups that follow human rights professionally, like Human Rights Watch (as opposed to certain editorial boards) are supportive of American participation at the council.  Since the United States joined it has become a demonstrably better institution.