An expert's point of view on a current event.

Defender of the Flame

Not only does the United States deserve a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, it’s leading the charge.


On November 12, the United States won reelection to the U.N. Human Rights Council, ensuring continued U.S. leadership for an additional three years. Our reelection, while certainly a victory for the United States, is also an important reminder of the central role the country plays and must continue to play on the international human rights stage.

Notwithstanding clear benefits that flow from continued U.S. engagement, critics continue to express disapproval of the U.S. role at the council. It’s time to put some of these criticisms to rest.

One well-rehearsed critique boils down to this: The United States should not engage with the Human Rights Council because it is irredeemably flawed. The defects of the council are well known — a persistent anti-Israel bias, membership that includes states with poor human rights records, and political-regional bloc dynamics that obstruct action. Yes, the council certainly is imperfect.

Yet those who argue that because of these flaws the United States should simply disengage misunderstand our responsibility on human rights and underestimate the value of U.S. leadership. The United States must sustain its leadership role on the council because of, not in spite of, its shortcomings.

The United States has been one of the few voices at the Human Rights Council speaking out against the anti-Israel bias. America has helped turn the council’s focus to real time human rights crises such as Libya and Syria.

Admittedly, we cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the fact that dictators such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez were granted seats at the table. This can, and does, undermine the legitimacy of the council. But for the United States to step away rather than doubling down on our leadership responsibilities, and cooperating with the numerous members of the council who are staunch defenders of human rights, would be running from rather than tackling a problem. Indeed, while council membership remains far from ideal, this reality only makes the case for continued and vigorous U.S. engagement stronger.

The more surprising criticism has come from human rights activists who voice the view that the United States does not deserve a seat at the table because of our human rights record at home. We are first to admit that no country has a perfect human rights record, the United States included. But the United States is proud of its human rights record.

We strive constantly to improve our human rights practices and policies. America’s aim is to help to build a world in which universal rights give strength and direction to all nations and institutions. As President Barack Obama has underscored, U.S. action in the world rests on commitment to "the inherent rights and dignity of every individual." The United States is not exempt from these ideals, and understands that the standards of membership at the council require that we live up to these standards.

In our first term at the council, the United States focused energy on creating a credible body capable of responding to the urgent human rights crises of our time. To a large degree, that vision is now being realized. The most egregious and urgent human rights crises now top the agenda. Voices of human rights defenders are amplified. Cross-regional partnerships based on shared human rights commitments are no longer the exception, but the rule. And the council has found a new ability to rapidly confront urgent human rights crises in real time. In sum, the Human Rights Council’s relevance and effectiveness have increased dramatically, in part because of active U.S. engagement.

An important case in point is the crisis in Syria, where the council has been on the frontlines, first dispatching a fact-finding mission that focused international attention on the nascent crisis and then creating an international Commission of Inquiry to document systematic and gross violations by the Bashar al-Assad regime. In the past 18 months of this conflict, the Human Rights Council is arguably the only international entity that has lived up to its responsibility, by creating a record that can ensure justice and accountability will be available for the Syrian people.

Despite resistance from some undemocratic governments, the United States helped strengthen core values such as women’s equality, freedom of expression, and human rights of LGBT people. And we have helped restore confidence in the council’s ability to address politically difficult thematic and country-specific situations.

When President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton decided to join the council, they had deep confidence that U.S. leadership would advance individual liberty around the globe. The record shows that their confidence was well placed. Protection of human rights is not only central to what the United States is as a nation but also as a foundation for our security. The United States must not retreat from the defense of the fundamental freedoms we hold so dear. If we are to live up to our responsibilities as a global leader, we must continue to invest, lead, and fight for human rights at the council. 

<p> Eileen Donahoe is U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council. </p>