Almost 10 years ago, the United Nations established a new Human Rights Council to overcome the intense polarization of its Cold War era predecessor and to elevate human rights as the third main pillar of the world body. The Bush administration decided not to join the Council, deeply skeptical it could do a serious job when notorious human rights violators sat in judgment of others. The Obama administration, on the other hand, chose to run for a seat on the Council on grounds the United States had a better shot at influencing its deliberations from the inside. After six years on the Council, Washington is now taking a mandatory gap year and promises to run again for another three-year term in 2017, when a new administration will be in office.
What has the Human Rights Council achieved in its first ten years of existence? What role has U.S. leadership played in its deliberations and outcomes? And what can we expect looking ahead to the next ten years? Are its critics right when they say the Council is hopelessly tainted by having the likes of China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba as members? Or does the record suggest a net positive balance sheet from U.S. engagement in Geneva? Let's review the arguments.
1. The Council's membership is fatally stacked against human rights.
As a body of the United Nations, the Council's 47-seat membership is drawn from all its 193 member states in accordance with a geographical distribution weighted in favor of Asia and Africa. Each regional group runs a closed or competitive slate for election by majority vote of the General Assembly; competitive slates offer a better chance of defeating spoilers. Candidates may submit voluntary human rights pledges to demonstrate their suitability for a seat (only some do), but vote trading and power politics are still the predominant criteria for election.
Since the Council was established in 2006, its membership has reflected the UN's diversity - with states large and small, democratic and authoritarian, and everything in between. This gives the Council unique legitimacy when it speaks out against violations in North Korea or Iran. But the notion that the Council's membership is mostly comprised of authoritarian regimes is wrong. From 2007-2015, a large majority of its membership has been composed of states that meet the free and partly free standards of Freedom House (between 74 and 85 percent); not-free states have never won more than about a quarter of the seats. While it is true that certain states like China, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela manage to get elected repeatedly, other notorious violators - Iran, Sudan, Syria, Azerbaijan and Belarus, to name a few - have at times been dissuaded from running or defeated in their campaigns. Smaller states like Zambia, Benin, Albania and Sierra Leone have been surprisingly effective at bridging competing alliances and supportive of pro-human rights outcomes despite the daunting demands of an expanding workload. Bigger democracies like India, South Africa and Indonesia, on the other hand, have been a disappointment, too often hiding behind the nonintervention screen instead of leading efforts to address dire situations. It would help if more democracies from every region ran for a seat on the Council and helped each other to strengthen its effectiveness.
2. The Council ignores the worst cases of human rights abuses in favor of "softer" topics like the elderly, children and the disabled.
While thematic topics, including arbitrary detentions, freedom of expression, human trafficking, and religious freedom occupy the majority of the Council's agenda, its mandate also covers specific country situations of gross violations and it has a range of mechanisms to address them. In its early years, an inordinate amount of time was taken up by the longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine, but more recently the Council has dramatically increased its scrutiny of such flagrant cases as Libya, Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Iran, Central African Republic and South Sudan. It does so through the dispatch of a growing number of independent experts and commissions of inquiry charged with monitoring and reporting on violations on the ground. The Council also adopts country-specific resolutions that have grown from a low of 17 percent of all resolutions in 2009 to a high of 42 percent in 2015. A growing number of these resolutions are adopted by consensus, reflecting a greater willingness to respond to grave violations; when votes are called on contentious country situations, cross-regional coalitions of democracies are often in the lead.
The Council's newest mechanism - a universal periodic review of each country's human rights record - is turning out to be an effective tool for ensuring that every state is called to account for its human rights performance. This is a big change from the old days when months of diplomatic wrangling over a resolution on China or Cuba would lead to stalemate and frustration. To date the process has garnered a remarkable 100 percent participation rate with more and more states accepting recommendations on everything from women's rights to torture. These assessments attract much-needed media attention in countries under review, give some room (but not enough) to civil society participation, and elevate human rights on the agenda of government ministries across the board.
3. The Council is woefully biased against Israel.
Among its ten standing agenda items, the Council has continued a permanent item on Israel's human rights behavior in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). This is clearly unfair. While Israel's treatment of Palestinians certainly deserves close scrutiny, it is hard to justify singling it out for such special attention. When the United States was absent from the Council, its members convened no less than six special sessions on Israel. Since the United States joined the body, only two such sessions have been called and one of these sessions was a hangover from when the United States shunned the Council; a similar decrease in the number of country resolutions devoted to Israel occurred, along with a corresponding increase in attention to cases like North Korea, Iran and Syria. Israel still views the body with trepidation, and fails to cooperate with its fact-finding commissions on OPT, but after initial opposition agreed to participate for a second time in the universal peer review process in 2013. According to Israel's ambassador in Geneva, "Israel came to the review with respect for the process, belief in the importance of its universality and cooperative nature, and with great pride in its achievements." Some in Washington argue that the Council's biased treatment of the United States' closest ally in the region demands a complete break from the body, but others argue that that would be an enormously high price to pay in terms of U.S. leadership in promoting human rights around the world. The politics of the United Nations suggest little movement on this issue in the near term, but the United States' willingness to defend Israel against such unfair treatment is best served by engaging directly on the body, and not walking away from it.
4. The Council is a toothless debating society with no impact outside Geneva.
Human rights advocates are rightfully frustrated with the machinations and secret handshakes in the halls of the Palais des Nations in Geneva that often lead to time-consuming debates on points of order and feckless resolutions like "human rights and international solidarity." However, compared to the pre-Council era, when governments met just once a year to fight over name-and-shame resolutions, the scope and depth of the Council's workload has exploded. This workload includes mandating independent monitoring of a host of human rights challenges. Since its creation, 20 new mandates of independent experts have been established and these mandates are generating dozens more country visits and critical reports. These independent experts act as the eyes and ears of the Council, carrying the UN's blue flag to dark prison cells and homeless shelters to document abuses of international law and demand remedies from local and national governments. Their recommendations have led to concrete action on problems ranging from combating torture in Jordan to protecting journalists in Cambodia, decriminalizing blasphemy in the United Kingdom and reducing prison sentences in China. The universal periodic review process is adding another layer of transparency and accountability by holding all states to their commitment to uphold international norms: Nearly half of the recommendations made were partially or fully implemented just two-and-a-half years after the first round of reviews.
On some of the most serious cases, the Council has taken action that has led to important and unprecedented results. The commission of inquiry on North Korea, for example, which delivered a hard-hitting report in 2014 documenting crimes against humanity, has changed the conversation from denials of human rights abuses to acceptance that the UN Security Council must address the matter, including through a potential referral to the International Criminal Court. On Sri Lanka, the Council has shifted from initially applauding the bloody termination of the conflict in 2009 to demanding an independent investigation of the abuses; this international pressure had a direct effect on subsequent elections in the country, and helped bring to power a new leader who immediately adopted a set of important reforms. On Syria, where the Security Council has failed to act, the Council has held multiple special sessions to hear from a commission of inquiry that is already passing names of suspects to courts in Europe, paving the way, some day, for real accountability for the manifold crimes in the country. On balance, the Council's actions turn out to be much more than paper exercises. Resources to do the hard work in the field, however, are pathetically scarce and desperately need to be replenished, not cut, as the Council's opponents suggest.
5. The United States would be more effective on human rights if it cut its losses at the UN and ran.
At the end of the day, critics who argue for leaving the Council in the hands of the spoilers are in effect abandoning the field to those who are determined to block any international scrutiny or condemnation of human rights violations around the world. The evidence against U.S. withdrawal is already available - its absence from the Council's tables during the first two years of its existence led to setbacks on multiple fronts, including the preponderant focus on Israel. Since the United States joined in 2008, the Council has taken a string of important actions that move the human rights agenda forward on both country situations like North Korea and Syria and on thematic priorities like LGBT rights and freedom of association.
The Obama administration is determined to treat its one-year hiatus in 2016 as no different from being a voting member on the Council, working behind the scenes to knit cross-regional coalitions and lobby in capitals for better candidates to serve on the body. If the next administration decided to walk away, it would lose the leverage that comes from active membership and let others fill the vacuum with damaging attempts to undermine the international human rights system. We've seen this movie before. It takes grit, guts and investment of time and resources to make the gears grind forward. Without the United States at the table, the human rights agenda will inevitably fall backwards. The Europeans are key allies but are hamstrung by their own slow internal processes of consensus building. And rising democracies like South Africa and India remain wobbly partners, at best. The United States, like it or not, needs to stay in the fight if it wants to remain a leader for human rights on the world stage.
Ted Piccone is the author of Catalysts for Change: How the UN's Independent Experts Promote Human Rights (Brookings Press, 2012) and Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal Order (Brookings Press, 2016).