In an interview with me in Geneva, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the Human Rights Council, responded to questions about the urgency of establishing a monitoring mechanism for Iran.
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Many may be critical of America's human rights policies, particularly its double standards when it comes to the records of its allies in the Middle East and beyond, not to mention in Bahrain. But human rights activists and organizations have welcomed the Obama administration's presence at the Human Rights Council in Geneva since 2009. Like it or not, "without a strong U.S. counterweight, non-democratic states such as Cuba, Algeria, China and Pakistan joined forces to blunt the Council's work and bully other states."

The UN will appoint a special rapporteur for Iran in the weeks to come.


In Geneva, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the Council is a superstar. She is the face of U.S. human rights in town, a master of building coalitions and cooperation with different partners to make things happen. In an interview with me in Geneva, she responded to questions about the urgency and significance of establishing a monitoring mechanism for Iran, the role of politics in U.S. human rights policy, the perception of U.S. hypocrisy towards its friends and foes, her opinion about the Iranian officials' allegations on the politicization of UN human rights mechanisms, and finally, why the U.S. is going aggressively after Iran's human rights record. Excerpts from the interview follow:

What is the significance of establishing a special monitoring mechanism for Iran? How did the Human Rights Council get to this point?

First, as you probably know, we tabled a resolution [In March] with approximately 50 co-sponsors, cross-regional, with every region of the world represented. The reason it is significant is because the Council in the past has been resistant on taking initiative on what we call country-specific human rights situations. There is a general sense that countries are often fearful of being criticized and therefore they will protect other countries from being criticized by the council, so that when it comes their turn to being criticized, maybe others will stick with them. The US has been fairly strong in advocating for a review of everybody's human rights records situation on their merits so this is very significant in the sense that many countries in the Council, and even some of the co-sponsors who are not members of the Council, are recognizing our responsibility to look at each human rights situation on their merit and decide if it warrants extra scrutiny. The case of Iran fits into that category very squarely from our point of view. We think that facts speak for themselves. The reason there is so much support for this cross regionally is because when it comes to human rights, the facts in the case of Iran are extreme. I can go on and on about that.

What has been the role of the U.S. in promoting special mechanism for Iran?

Significant. The U.S. has been a strong advocate of getting this special rapporteur. It is a new mechanism for the whole UN system, and we have been a leader in building the coalition, and yet, we believe that because the human rights situation is so outrageous, we are getting support from around the globe. We do not think that we have this coalition simply because other countries are simply doing the United States a favor. We do not see it essentially as a political statement between the United States and Iran.

This, really, is a condemnation of the atrocious behavior by the Iranian regime on its own people. This has been a chronic human rights situation for several decades, however, since the contested election in 2009, there has been an intensification of the crackdown on political opposition, there has been a spike in executions, particularly against political opposition, and also, there has been an increase against religious prosecution, women's activists have been abused, and there has been an increase in brutality, of tactics used by the Iranian regime to squelch legitimate opposition. So, it's both the chronic situation and this intensification.

Many believe that when it comes to human rights, the U.S. suffers from double standards. So Washington very critical about a country like Iran and at the same time play softball with a country like Saudi Arabia. What is your take on this?

Iran is one of, I think, three countries that has a recurring resolution at the General Assembly every year condemning its human rights violations. Those other countries all already have a country-specific mechanism focusing the world's attention on the human rights situation. Iran has not had one, but that's what this resolution will do. It will fill that gap. So, this is not about the United States' assessment of the human rights situation in Iran; virtually it's a consensus understanding that Iran is an outlaw in the international community, no matter how you look at it, when it comes to human rights. This is not the particular line of the United States; this is the condemnation of the international community with respect to human rights.

How much politics is involved in this?

We don't see this, at least those of us who have been working in Geneva, laying the groundwork and seeking to build our coalition, we don't see it as essentially political at all. Our work is about human rights. That's why we told many other countries that this is not about pressure by the United States, and we haven't been able to build this coalition because of pressure by the United States, it's where facts speak for themselves, and the atrocities speak for themselves. One other thing I would say is the human rights defenders that have gotten out of Iran have made the case for us. When there is enough information coming out of Iran, we almost don't need to argue at all, the case is made for us. One of the biggest concerns we have is that there has been a dampening down on the information we have been able to get out of Iran, and that is one of our biggest concerns. We think that if the facts were widely known and fully known, this case would have been made long ago. In that last year or so, the efforts to use intimidation and brutality to get those journalists and human rights advocates to be quiet has increased. It is a significant fact that they are either in jail or so intimidated that they would have to leave. Others have been brutalized or are just fearful, and those elements make us particularly concerned, because if you allow human rights activists to speak and the facts get out, we believe the facts would do the job. This case needs a little bit more help now, to make sure those facts get out, because there is such suppression of information.

What would be the message of establishing a special monitoring mechanism for Iran, for Iranians and government with similar characteristics?

I think there are a couple of important messages; one is about the institution of the Human Rights Council, and the other is about Iran itself. On Iran itself, it is that the international community understands that Iran is an outlaw when it comes to its human rights record. It's not just one of a bunch of countries that have a different culture, or different values. It is an extreme case, and the international community is no longer willing to let it go without extra scrutiny and condemnation. The effect on the ground, we hope, would be to let the human rights defenders in that country, and those who are in prison or being tortured know that there is solidarity on the part of the international community with them, we are there to support them, we are using the pressure we have to further isolate the Iranian regime, and we want them to know that we will be supporting any movement toward democracy and greater liberty of human rights defenders there.

In terms of [the message] for the Council and other countries observing this, we have seen an improvement in the dynamics of the Council in recent months, particularly on the willingness of the membership of the Council to deal with crisis human rights situations that arise and dealing with them in almost real time and when it really matters. We saw it in the case of Libya, where we had another special session, and then, later in the G8, membership privileges were suspended because outrageous human rights violations were committed by the regime. I think that this case of Iran fits into that severe and crisis situation. It will have two kinds of effects on countries. Those who are human rights abusers will recognize they do not have impunity. They will not get away with it in the international community; that we will speak together and we will use our influence to put pressure on them to improve their human rights. And secondly, inside the Council--I think that it's a wakeup call for everyone that we have a responsibility here. If you are a member of the Council, you have a duty to the international community to hold governments to account to universal human rights standards. This is not about regional blocks protecting each other's membership within their own block, this is about living up to your responsibility to uphold all countries in the UN system to a higher standard.

No special rapporteurs have been allowed to visit Iran since 2005. There have been 80 inquiries from special procedures, and Iran has responded to only 8 of them. What is the guarantee that this will work? What are the consequences for the Iranian government if they don't cooperate?

First of all, there is no guarantee, without a doubt. However, that context is very important, because it is an important piece of the rationale for this country-specific resolution. Those other special procedures are thematic; they have global responsibility for them, for torture, for arbitrary detention, etc. Part of our rationale for this initiative, the more chronic human rights aspect of this initiative, is what we call "radical non-cooperation" with UN human rights mechanisms, and that's what they demonstrated with respect to all the special procedures in the past. The cases where they perhaps can say that they have given an invitation to someone regionally, we see as a charade, because they haven't really. In fact, very recently, the High Commissioner who had made a request to go visit with certain conditions, just by pure coincidence that there has been a response to her inquiry, and it appears as though it is very much connected to the fact that this resolution was moving forward and they were making an attempt to manipulate the international community into thinking that all of a sudden they decided to cooperate. I don't think it worked. I think the international community did not fall for it. Nobody believes that they are in fact going to cooperate. So, the argument is that if you have not done your cooperation in the past, we are not going to be fooled now. This additional, focused, country-specific condemnation type of resolution is necessary and this mechanism, focused on human rights violations, is warranted. Will they cooperate with it? It remains to be seen. But if they don't, it will have two positive effects on human rights--further isolating the regime, and further unifying the international community against the regime. So it's not about one country's view of them politically. This is the international community saying "you've lost your legitimacy." It's a statement to that effect. In addition, it will support and hopefully embolden the remaining human rights people on the ground in Iran. It will help support the democracy advocates' movement there, they will know that the international community is paying attention, and it supports them. I think that it will have beneficial effect.

There was a huge propaganda campaign against the U.S. by the Iranian delegation and the GONGO's that were present in Geneva. How did you see the impact of this on the process? It doesn't have much effect. I think it is a kind of a sad statement about how much the Iranian regime thinks their propaganda will work, but it won't work, and I think the international community can see through it. They believe that they can manipulate the public opinion about themselves and about other countries. I think they will fail, and I don't think it has a big effect.

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