The Multilateralist

The diplomacy of human rights (update)

Engagement has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. At the U.N., this policy has been most evident on human rights issues. The Obama team is participating in several human rights treaty processes that the Bush administration stiff-armed. And the United States sought and won a seat on the Human Rights Council, which ...

Engagement has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. At the U.N., this policy has been most evident on human rights issues. The Obama team is participating in several human rights treaty processes that the Bush administration stiff-armed. And the United States sought and won a seat on the Human Rights Council, which the Bush adminstration shunned (after successfully pressing for the U.N. to restructure the institution).

The basic arguments on the merits of engagement are familiar: The Bush folks opposed legitimizing what they considered fundamentally flawed institutions and processes; the Obama team insisted that the best way to reform them was to be part of the game. In the abstract, it’s a tough dispute to referee. Fortunately, there’s some empirical evidence that can be used to assess the fruits of engagement. Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner recently published an updated look at the EU’s human rights efforts at the UN and in so doing they’ve generated some fascinating data and conclusions.

Overall, they are not optimistic about the UN as a vehicle for advancing the human rights agenda. They argue that the emnity that the Bush administration generated masked a broader trend against liberal internationalism at the U.N. and a shift toward a strong defense of sovereignty.

The overall message from the General Assembly is clear: The Obama administration’s re-engagement in UN human rights diplomacy has persuaded some non-Western countries to rethink their positions. But, in general, the drift away from the West continues, and core disagreements will continue to split the UN membership in the years ahead.

None of this means that engagement is necessarily the wrong policy. But it does mean that its fruits are likely to be less abundant than many had hoped.

More:  Some of the trends highlighted in the Gowan and Brantner report mesh with recent comments from Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski. He believes there is still room for progress in forums like the Human Rights Council (and cites a recent resolution on freedom of association passed in the Council). But more broadly, he’s very concerned about the influence of China in these fora. He describes China as "an emerging, confident power whose government has no interest in the enforcement of human rights norms." When it can do so without isolating itself, he argues, it uses its weight to push back against human rights instruments. Emerging powers Brazil and India are more complicated cases. They have not been champions of traditional human rights at the UN (in fact, Gowan and Brantner describe Brazil as "an absent friend") but they are susceptible to domestic pressure. Malinowski indicated that Human Rights Watch will be making major efforts to advance the human rights agenda from inside these countries and may soon be opening a Brazilian office.

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