The Trump Administration has produced various rationales for its decision last week to launch cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase after the Syrian government used chemical weapons to attack and kill Syrian civilians. In his remarks just after the U.S. strike, President Trump said the United States would work with other nations to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. In Italy this week for a meeting of the G7, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took this notion even further, and said the United States would rededicate itself “to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”
For an administration that until now has signaled it will downgrade U.S. focus on human rights and deeply questioned the value of multilateral engagement, including the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, Tillerson’s statement was broad and surprising. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the statement reflects a newfound commitment to international human rights and justice. Still, the statement offers an opportunity to remind the Trump Administration that the backbone of any effort to ensure accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria are some of the very institutions it has questioned, specifically the UN Human Rights Council.
While the UN Security Council has been largely deadlocked on Syria for years, the Human Rights Council has presented an alternative venue.
Its members have passed numerous resolutions on Syria, perhaps the most important being its resolutions creating a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria, which has been charged with investigating evidence of such crimes since its creation in August 2011. Any eventual accountability for atrocities in Syria will depend on evidence and documentation, of the sort the COI has been gathering.
The United States was a member of the Human Rights Council in 2011, and helped lead the diplomatic effort to persuade other member states to establish the Syria COI; the United States has continued to prod other HRC members to re-up the COI’s mandate with strong vote counts in favor on a regular basis since then. This is despite the difficult politics around Syria in the United Nations more generally.
Since its establishment, the COI has produced 20 detailed and gruesome reports on mass killings, rapes, forced disappearances and other crimes by the Syria government, rebel forces and the Islamic State – it is one of the few comprehensive efforts to document what is happening in the Syrian civil war, and will be essential to any eventual effort to ensure accountability for “crimes against innocents.” It is now sharing information it has collected with a new UN unit that was established this spring in Geneva to build case files for eventual prosecution of international crimes by all actors in the Syria conflict.
A U.S. decision to resign from the Human Rights Council, which the the Trump Administration has said it is considering, could make the work of the COI more vulnerable, as it is dependent on regular mandate extensions and threatened by procedural maneuvers by those member states that would prefer the Council not focus on specific country situations.
To be sure, the Trump Administration is rightly concerned about the HRC’s membership – as was the Obama Administration. It is hard to understand how the likes of China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia can credibly sit on a body dedicated to human rights. (Russia, a regular HRC member, was voted off the Council by UN member states in October 2016, but still plays a strong behind-the-scenes diplomatic role in Geneva through friendly proxies.) But the United States, as an HRC member, can go toe-to-toe with those actors and win – using the force of our diplomacy, the strength of our leadership, and the power of our example – to ensure the Council’s focus remains on the worst human rights violators around the world – on the situations in Syria, Iran, North Korea, South Sudan, Burundi, among others.
It is important not to lose sight of those efforts, even while appropriate to criticize the Council’s questionable members and imbalanced focus on Israel.
U.S. leadership at the Council since the Obama Administration’s decision to run for election to the HRC in 2009 has produced meaningful results. In addition to the Syria COI, the United States led the successful diplomacy to persuade Council members to create a Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, in 2013; that COI’s comprehensive report provided the first specific look the international community had into the terrible human rights situation in North Korea, and led directly to the issue of human rights in that country being placed on the agenda of the Security Council for the first time — against the wishes of the Chinese. The United States has also spearheaded the Council’s focus on the dire situations in South Sudan and Burundi, including a special session on human rights in South Sudan in December 2016, and has helped ensure success on multiple difficult votes renewing the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran.
US leadership has also spurred progress on thematic issues. Over several years, working closely with Latin American countries in Geneva, the United States helped shepherd several HRC resolutions on the protection of human rights for LGBTI persons, which eventually led, last summer, to the HRC agreeing (in an exceedingly difficult vote) to create a special rapporteur on LGBTI rights, with a three year mandate. Although the United States was off the Council in 2016 (mandatory term limits), our strong standing based on our robust engagement since joining the Council in 2010 enabled us to continue to wield our diplomatic weight successfully, even though we didn’t have a vote in Council proceedings that year.
Withdrawing from the HRC would cede this important (and relatively low cost) space to the Russians, Chinese and others, who could, without the presence of the United States, much more easily lobby countries against key Council mandates, use the Council as a venue to bash the United States, and renew the Council’s overwhelming focus on Israel. Many Council members would prefer, Israel aside, that the Council not focus its efforts on actual country specific situations, preferring instead to have the Council spend all its time debating questionable norms, like a “right to development.” That — combined with a renewed overwhelming focus on Israel — is the direction in which the Council will again head absent a U.S. seat at the table.
In the near term, a decision to walkaway could jeopardize the Council’s work on Syria. If the United States is serious about confronting rights abuses and holding perpetrators to account, as Tillerson suggested, it would be wise to stay engaged at the HRC, and put the full diplomatic weight of the United States behind ensuring the Council continues to produce results like the Syria COI’s reports. Strong U.S. words of condemnation, on their own, can’t ensure eventual accountability; nor can the United States unilaterally bring criminal actors in Syria to justice. But working through multilateral mechanisms like the HRC, the United States can help ensure such actors will eventually be made to answer for their barbarism.