Too multilateral on human rights?
Earlier this month, the Post‘s Jackson Diehl blasted the Obama administration for its timidity on human rights issues. In the piece, he catalogued a succession of bland U.S. statements on Egypt, Bahrain, and Venezuela. But he also argued that part of the problem is a conscious U.S. strategy of voicing objections through multilateral mechanisms like ...
Earlier this month, the Post's Jackson Diehl blasted the Obama administration for its timidity on human rights issues. In the piece, he catalogued a succession of bland U.S. statements on Egypt, Bahrain, and Venezuela. But he also argued that part of the problem is a conscious U.S. strategy of voicing objections through multilateral mechanisms like the UN Human Rights Council rather than unilaterally:
Earlier this month, the Post‘s Jackson Diehl blasted the Obama administration for its timidity on human rights issues. In the piece, he catalogued a succession of bland U.S. statements on Egypt, Bahrain, and Venezuela. But he also argued that part of the problem is a conscious U.S. strategy of voicing objections through multilateral mechanisms like the UN Human Rights Council rather than unilaterally:
When the administration touts its record it often focuses on the declarations it has engineered by multilateral forums, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council. The ideology behind this is that the United States is better off working through such bodies than acting on its own. The problem is that, in practice, this is not true. Set aside for the moment the fact that the U.N. council is dominated by human rights abusers who devote most of the agenda to condemnations of Israel. Who has heard what the council said about, say, the recent events in Belarus? The obvious answer: far fewer people than would have noticed if the same critique came from Obama or Clinton.
I spoke to Diehl about the column and he doubled down on the criticism. "You have to go back to the Nixon years to find an administration that has been quieter on human rights," he says. He sees the subdued approach and the reliance on multilateral institutions as part and parcel of the administration’s philosophy. Diehl is not alone in his view. Writing in the Arab Reform Bulletin, Andrew Albertson makes a similar critique:
Multilateral efforts have had some modest impact, but are undercut when individual states-especially the United States itself-fail to attach meaningful consequences to UN findings. When the Egyptian government renewed the state of emergency in May 2010 following months of concerted multilateral diplomacy, Washington issued a quiet protest and little more. Likewise, regional observers have criticized the administration’s efforts on internet freedom (for example, training online activists) as at best insufficient and at worst an excuse to avoid tackling more sensitive issues such as political freedom. Meanwhile, the administration’s rhetorical emphasis on working first "here at home" to end U.S. hypocrisy on human rights, while well-meaning, appears to have only reinforced the arguments of Arab governments against reform, undermining diplomatic efforts in the near-term.
The administration’s response to this criticism is what one would predict. U.S. officials adamantly deny that America has been quiet on human rights. In today’s speech on China, Hillary Clinton insisted that the United States continues to speak forthrightly.
America will continue to speak out and to press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists; when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship; when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government’s positions; and when some, like Chen Guangcheng, are persecuted even after they are released.
Working through multilateral forums, U.S. officials insist, is part of a coordinated strategy, not a way to soft-pedal the issue. Suzanne Nossel, a deputy assistant secretary of state and former Human Rights Watch chief operations officer, put it to me this way:
It’s not an either-or proposition. The President and the Secretary can and do raise their voices on human rights issues, as Secretary Clinton did in Doha when she talked bluntly about the urgent imperative of empowering civil society in the Mideast. But it is also critical to broaden the array of countries willing to take a stand on human rights issues, as we did a few weeks ago when we successfully urged African States to call a Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Cote d’Ivoire, the first time Africans had called for such a session to address a human rights crisis their own region. We need to be a strong voice, but also to build a chorus so that the message cannot be dismissed on the basis that it is made-in America or reflects a particular value system.
But for a moment, let’s assume what the administration won’t say publicly: that they believe human rights criticism is actually more effective when it comes from a multilateral body like the UN Human Rights Council than from top American officials. The argument might go like this: there’s a reactive devaluation when the United States condemns some foreign government’s practices. People’s defenses go up; they assume that the United States has some ulterior motive; or they point to American hypocrisy. "In some cases, unilateral U.S. human rights promotion efforts can also be problematic because they can provoke a counterproductive backlash," says Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First.
A resolution from a diverse body like the Human Rights Council, the argument might go, signals much more effectively that a state has transgressed international norms. And as Massimino argues, states subject to criticism clearly care about the Council’s resolutions because they will lobby furiously to short circuit criticism. What’s more, it can be argued that putting the weight and resources of the United States behind the Council increases the chances that it will be an effective institution for years to come.
But does a resolution from the Human Rights Council — even with the United States as an active member — really mean anything to beleaguered dissidents? For his part, Diehl doubts it. He believes that these people need to hear loud and clear that the United States is on their side; wordsmithing in Geneva doesn’t do the trick.
The key difference seems to be over the importance of an international architecture. Diehl’s argument, which I think tracks fairly closely with the neoconservative worldview, puts a very low priority on building international structures. The key is to boost dissidents, pressure autocratic governments, and get better regimes — the faster the better. The Obama administration, and the mainstream human rights community as a whole, believes that constructing a global human rights architecture has a value of its own.
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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