Terms of Engagement

U.N. Human Rights Council Condemns Actual Human Rights Abusers!

Or, in praise of small victories.


If you’re inclined to think that "U.N. Human Rights Council" is a contradiction in terms — and really, who isn’t? — you should look at a clip of council president Laura Dupuy Lasserre, a Uruguayan, warning a senior Bahraini official not to retaliate against activists who came to Geneva to testify about Bahrain’s dreadful human rights record. "We reject such allegations," says an indignant Salah bin Ali Mohammed Abdulrahman. "We have entered a new phase in the history of our country." Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Belarus, those champions of human rights, leap to his defense, and administer a dressing-down to the council president. And Dupuy Lasserre stands her ground. "I wish to renew my expression of confidence that there will be no kind of problem involved with this," she concludes.

This is the same U.N. Human Rights Council that President George W. Bush refused to join on the grounds that it would be packed with human rights abusers who viewed Israel as the only nation worthy of criticism. His successor Barack Obama reversed that decision as part of his commitment to multilateral institutions, a move conservatives criticized, and still criticize, as naïve.

It’s true that the UNHCR remains fixated on Israel; the council has a standing agenda item requiring an annual report on Israel’s human rights record in the West Bank. But that’s not the whole truth. The council has responded to the Arab Spring with resolutions sharply criticizing the regimes in Libya and Syria; as I write, the council is in special session to respond to the massacre in the Syrian villages of al-Houla. I’m surprised — and critics on the right should be very surprised — at the extent to which the United States has been able to make the Human Rights Council more effective by joining it and intensely engaging in its work, which is precisely what Obama predicted what happen.

"Until the U.S. joined," says Paula G. Schriefer, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, "victories were counted in the number of times you could stave off disaster." Schriefer would know: Until earlier this year she worked at the human rights organization Freedom House, where she spent years writing dismal report cards on the performance of the council and its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. Most notoriously, after the council held a special session in 2009 on Sri Lanka’s savage war against Tamil insurgents, it issued a resolution congratulating Colombo for the campaign, despite the death of tens of thousands of civilians. This past March, however, despite overwhelming pressure from the Sri Lankan government, the council voted to require Sri Lanka to investigate those deaths, and ordered the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights to report on its compliance. "It’s becoming the new normal that the council does the right thing," Schriefer says.

Admonishing human rights abusers like Bahrain, Syria or Sri Lanka will not, of course, change their behavior. In the end, only internal pressure can compel an oppressive  regime to do so. But these public dramas help empower internal critics: the Bahrain Center for Human Rights exulted at the pasting government officials took in Geneva. And states cannot dismiss the council as a tool of the West; many of the toughest criticisms have come from emerging democracies, including Brazil and Mexico. India, long a protector of authoritarian allies, voted for the Sri Lanka resolution.

Indeed, the council’s effectiveness reflects the growing importance of non-Western rights-respecting countries. In years past, even Third World democracies could be counted on to toe the line laid down by states like Cuba, which dominated internal debate in the so-called Group of 77 developing nations. That’s no longer true, and democracies like Brazil take offense at the claim that human rights are a peculiarly Western preoccupation. These states are increasingly eager to stand up for their democratic principles in international fora (though they continue to treat Israel as the one democracy worthy of perpetual condemnation).

At the same time, the U.S. role has been vital. Obama appointed as ambassador Eileen Donahoe, a major Democratic donor (though also a scholar at Stanford University). But Donahoe has surprised human rights activists who saw her as a classic political appointee. Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, describes Donahoe as "the best diplomat the U.S. has ever had in Geneva." Donahoe has worked closely with developing-word democracies as well as with Western allies to pass country-specific resolutions, to restore a special rapporteur on Iran and the like.

One of Donahoe’s more obscure achievements is changing the procedure known as Universal Periodic Review, which is what brought the Bahraini delegation to Geneva. When the council was established to replace the disgraced Human Rights Commission, one of its major selling points was that every country in the world would have its human rights record subjected to a peer-review process. Countries would draw up a report, and states would have the right to question their claims and recommend changes. But authoritarian regimes gamed the system by prevailing on their friends to line up in advance — sleeping on the steps, according to one human rights official — to pack the list of questioners, lob softballs, and seek vacuous "reforms." Even the on-the-level reviews were marked by timidity and diplomatic politesse. Tunisia was applauded as a model of development.

This year, with all 192 countries having undergone review, and a new round set to begin, the rules were revised so that all members could intervene. As it happened, Bahrain was the first to go, last week. The delegation presented a bland report on issues like access to health care and child protection, and observed that events of the last year had "enabled Bahrain to realize significant human rights reforms and achievements in favour of citizens." Bahrain, of course, has been accused of jailing and torturing regime opponents and imprisoning medical personnel who seek to treat injured activists. And states, mainly though not wholly Western, raised all of these concerns, and called on Bahrain to change laws and accede to treaties in order to ensure the protection of rights.  The Bahrainis, of course, demurred: "The head of the delegation reiterated that there were no detainees of freedom of expression and opinion…" But they were handed 176 recommendations to which they will have to respond before the next session, four years hence.

The confrontation with Dupuy Lasserre arose because Bahraini human rights activists who came to Geneva to testify to the harsh practices they endured were being labeled as traitors and Iranian agents in the country’s press. Dupuy Lasserre spoke up publicly to remind the official delegation of the obligation to protect those who provide information to the council. She then read out the names of each individual who had done so — "so you can carry out your followup." Abdulrahman, Bahrain’s human rights minister, denied that the activists were endangered, and added ominously, "I would like to know which party communicated that information to you." It has since been reported that the group is to be summoned to the Ministry of Interior for interrogation. There is certainly no reason to feel confident that Dupuy Lasserre’s willingness to put the Bahrainis on notice will deter them from subjecting human rights activists to the kind of intimidation and mistreatment that has become routine over the last year.

So yes, in the end it’s only words. If the Obama administration, with all its leverage, can’t make the Bahrain regime stop targeting the peaceful opposition, neither can Universal Periodic Review or Ms. Dupuy Lasserre. But words do matter; if they didn’t, all that Israel-bashing wouldn’t raise such hackles. The Human Rights Council can increase the reputational cost for bad behavior, and point a way toward better behavior for those willing to change. The Obama administration has gotten something valuable in exchange for a very modest investment.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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