Daniel W. Drezner

Why multilateral diplomacy can be a dead bang political loser

Over at Politico, Laura Rozen posts about the subtle efforts by the United States to moderate the United Nations Human Rights Council’s behavior. These efforts have yielded… well, let’s see what Rozen’s got:  “We have started to shake things up,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Suzanne Nossel told POLITICO, although she added, change ...

Over at Politico, Laura Rozen posts about the subtle efforts by the United States to moderate the United Nations Human Rights Council's behavior. These efforts have yielded... well, let's see what Rozen's got: 

“We have started to shake things up,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Suzanne Nossel told POLITICO, although she added, change is “incremental and slower than we would like.”

For the last eleven years, the UN human rights body has run a resolution that bans defamation of religion. The resolution is aimed at preventing the publication of for instance the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that enraged many in the Muslim world.

Over at Politico, Laura Rozen posts about the subtle efforts by the United States to moderate the United Nations Human Rights Council’s behavior. These efforts have yielded… well, let’s see what Rozen’s got: 

“We have started to shake things up,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Suzanne Nossel told POLITICO, although she added, change is “incremental and slower than we would like.”

For the last eleven years, the UN human rights body has run a resolution that bans defamation of religion. The resolution is aimed at preventing the publication of for instance the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that enraged many in the Muslim world.

The resolution, opposed by advocates of freedom of expression, passed again last week at the Geneva body, but this time by its smallest margin ever, with 20 countries voting for the resolution, 17 against, and with 8 abstentions.

"It is encouraging that more states are starting to stand up against initiatives that threaten to undermine human rights," Human Rights Watch’s Julie de Rivero said. "Countries such as Zambia and Argentina that voted against the ‘defamation of religions’ resolution are demonstrating positive leadership at the Human Rights Council."

The U.S. has been trying to push member countries instead towards an alternative resolution that would counter racial and religious intolerance, such as Switzerland’s minaret ban, while protecting freedom of speech.

“We achieved a consensus resolution that halted efforts towards a binding treaty that would infringe on freedom of speech," Nossel said, explaining that it was a neutral procedural resolution, with no language about banning defamation or new binding protocols.

That, plus a new U.S.-backed resolution on human rights in Guinea following the September 2009 massacre and stronger resolutions on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and North Korea mark what Nossel described as accomplishments on the long road toward the U.S.’s objective of turning the Council into a more credible and effective force on behalf of human rights globally.

Hmmm… in terms of measuring progress, I think I would translate Nossel’s "incremental and slower than we would like" to mean "slower than continental drift" in plain English. 

My point here is not to suggest that Nossel and her compatriots are doing a bad job — far from it. They have made some inroads into the so-ridiculous-it’s-easy-to-lampoon-it nature of the Human Rights Council. 

But these are ridiculously small inroads, and extremely difficult to sell politically. Rozen’s a sympathetic reporter on this issue, but the intrinsic silliness of the Human Rights Council remains largely undisturbed after reading this story. The Obama administration’s engagement strategy with the institution have yielded nonzero but meager returns. 

A politically sustainable strategy of patient multilateralism requires the occasional tangible success to point to by its boosters. I doubt the Human Rights Council will be producing any of those deliverables anytime soon. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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