The Multilateralist

When UN human rights officials call, does the United States answer?

The Obama administration has made reengagement with the UN’s human rights infrastructure one of its signature accomplishments in the multilateral realm. In 2009, the U.S. campaigned for and won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, a body that the Bush administration had spurned. Active U.S. diplomacy on the Council has helped produce a ...

The Obama administration has made reengagement with the UN’s human rights infrastructure one of its signature accomplishments in the multilateral realm. In 2009, the U.S. campaigned for and won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, a body that the Bush administration had spurned. Active U.S. diplomacy on the Council has helped produce a number of notable accomplishments, including condemnation of abuses by Iran, Libya, and Syria. As former State Department official Suzanne Nossel wrote recently:

Due in significant part to vigorous, determined efforts by the United States, the Human Rights Council demonstrates a newfound credibility as a human rights watchdog. The story of how the United States and others turned around the Human Rights Council since joining the body in 2009 offers a case study on effective tactics for achieving U.S. policy goals through multilateral diplomacy and advancing human rights norms at the United Nations.

The United States has laid special emphasis on the Council’s use of special experts, individuals given a mandate to investigate some particular country or human rights theme. The U.S. fought successfully for the appointment of a special rapporteur for Iran and has urged states to cooperate fully with these and other experts. As a 2010 report by the Brookings Institution emphasized, these experts are highly dependent on cooperation from involved states: "Lack of state cooperation…represents the chief obstacle to their work. Failure to accept requests to visit, to respond to allegations and to follow up on their recommendations as well as hostile attacks on their work are the most glaring and widespread areas needing attention."

So how does the United States react when the council’s experts want to scrutinize its  behavior? In many cases, the U.S. record is positive. James Ayana, the Council’s expert for indigenous issues, reported excellent cooperation from the administration. "I met with every agency and department with which I asked to meet in the administration," he told National Public Radio (Ayana did indicate however that he got little response from Capitol Hill).

Ted Piccone, author of the Brookings study, characterizes the United States as a "middling performer" in engaging with UN experts. A large number of rapporteurs have visited the United States and met with U.S. officials, but the U.S. government has not issued the kind of standing invitation that many other Western countries have. What’s more, the United States often lags badly in responding to written requests from UN experts. "A lot of rapporteurs get no responses or get very insubstantial ones," he says.   

Unsurprisingly, U.S. cooperation is least fulsome when UN experts request information about sensitive areas of national security and counterterrorism policy. The Human Rights Council’s point person on extrajudicial killings recently expressed frustration with what he argues is a policy of evasion regarding U.S. targeted killings:

Christof Heyns, the U.N.’s independent investigator on extrajudicial killings, had asked the United States to lay out the legal basis and accountability procedures for the use of armed drones. He also wanted the U.S. to publish figures on the number of civilians killed in drone strikes against suspected terror leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

After a two-day "interactive dialogue" with U.S. officials at the United Nations in Geneva, Heyns said he was still waiting for a satisfactory reply.

"I don’t think we have the full answer to the legal framework, we certainly don’t have the answer to the accountability issues," he told reporters on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.

Heyns’ predecessor, Philip Alston, was also displeased by the limited detail and exceedingly vague legal justifications U.S. officials offered regarding its drone campaign (U.S. officials issued a statement yesterday regarding the UN’s inquiries here). Other UN experts have encountered similar obstacles. According to Piccone, a group of special rapporteurs that sought to visit Guantanamo Bay prisoners during the Bush administration were presented with a list of conditions they could not accept. More recently, the UN’s rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, was repeatedly frustrated by the government’s unwillingness to let him meet privately with the accused Wikileaks source Bradley Manning. Mendez was investigating whether holding Manning in solitary confinement for an extended period constituted torture.  

The mixed U.S. record, particularly on sensitive national security matters, creates a potentially significant problem of double standards. After all, the issues the United States wants other countries to address tend to be their own most sensitive points, often going directly to national security and regime survival. Helping to reinvigorate the UN’s human rights machinery has been positive in many respects. But it also invites some uncomfortable questions about how seriously the United States takes the system it’s touting.     

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