The U.S. Role in UN Human Rights Reform

Discussants: Pegg L. Hicks, Anne Bayefsky

For the original debate  on the Council on Foreign Relations website, click here

Updated: July 31, 2006

One of the UN’s biggest reform efforts to date was the dissolution of the discredited Human Rights Commission and the creation of a Human Rights Council earlier this year. A longtime force on the former UN commission, the United States voted against the Council, saying it lacked criteria to prevent rights-abusing states from gaining membership and distorting the body’s mission. The United States also chose not to run for membership on the new body, but said it would work with it to protect human rights. Watchdog groups and some UN member states criticized the U.S. decision, saying it has hurt the Council’s ability to press for meaningful human rights reforms worldwide.

Peggy Hicks, the global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, and Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, editor of, and professor at Touro Law School, debate U.S. policy on engaging the new Council and the impact on human rights promotion.

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Anne Bayefsky

Most Recent

July 31, 2006

Anne Bayefsky

Human Rights Watch (HRW) thinks the Human Rights Council’s treatment of Israel, at its first session, its first special session, and every other session hereafter (since it created an Israeli agenda item for all future sessions) is besides the point, an irrelevant detail for U.S. participation.

Peggy Hicks refers to the Durban Racism Conference as having "nothing to do" with the Council. Perhaps she should read the resolution the Council adopted a month ago titled "The Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action." And as for the role of HRW at Durban itself, I personally beseeched the group (as the representative of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists) to vote against the "Zionism is racism" NGO document. They refused. Only after the fact, faced with the specter of donor criticism, did HRW briefly get over its laryngitis.

The Council is now the playground of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its allies in much of the developing world. It was plain when the Council was created without a single criterion for membership that actually required protecting human rights, plainer once the members were elected and abusers went right back on, and plainest after the shameful performance of the initial sessions.

To suggest the Council is set to adopt country-specific resolutions condemning human rights violations anywhere in the world, but for in Israel, is totally false. Given the membership and distribution of power, there is no possibility the Council will adopt a resolution naming and shaming Mugabe, Saudi princes, or Chinese despots. Nor is there a chance the Council will hold a special session on Sudan to condemn genocide or take serious action to stop it.

Universal periodic review (UPR) is not going to solve this inescapable impotence. It is a classic example of the foxes minding the chicken coop. Its procedures are bound to ensure the perfunctory consideration of about sixty states a year, with 192 members driving through this "non-confrontational" process (as the African group so delicately puts it) in a likely three-year cycle.

It’s time for Human Rights Watch to stop imagining the United States is the real enemy of human rights, and international protection of human rights is best conducted when human rights abusers hold hands with democracies in a bogus global love-in. Tender feelings at the Council will last only so long as democracies are prepared to keep paying for their own subservience.

Peggy L. Hicks

July 28, 2006

Peggy Hicks

Anne Bayefsky wants to write off the Human Rights Council because of its flawed consideration of Israel at its first session. To support that position, she has dredged up misdeeds by a group of NGOs at a meeting parallel to a UN conference five years ago—nothing to do with the Council or even its predecessor the Commission on Human Rights. And, contrary to her contention, Human Rights Watch publicly denounced the NGO groups’ language on Israel, as many press reports will attest. But is that really the point? 

Instead, let’s look at the work ahead for the Council. At its June meeting, the Council renewed the mandates of all the experts appointed by the Commission on Human Rights to examine countries or issues of concern. When those experts report at the Council’s September session, thirteen countries, including North Korea, Sudan, and Burma, will be discussed. Additional experts on topics including trafficking, freedom of religion, and human rights defenders will make recommendations on battling rights violations.

Last year, Nepal bowed to pressure during the Commission on Human Rights and agreed to allow UN human rights monitors throughout the country. These monitors have played a hugely important role in highlighting violations by the government and rebel forces. This year, the Council could bring such leverage to bear on dozens of countries by discussing expert reports, holding special sessions, considering country situations and adopting resolutions, and following up through the whole UN system, including the Security Council.

Despite her concerns about selectivity by the Commission, Ms. Bayefsky dismisses out of hand the universal review process intended to remedy that problem through a systematic examination of the human rights records of all UN members. Negotiations will occur this year to determine the process for universal review. If the United States is serious about wanting effective action against violating states, it needs to be in the room for those decisions, rather than throwing stones from outside. 

Ms. Bayefsky condemns the entire world save the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau (who all voted against the Council) by claiming the Council is an “embarrassment to any government serious about human rights.” Isn’t there some reason to hope the situation is not quite so bleak if the rest of the world’s democracies feel differently? The United States should join its allies and participate actively in the Council’s work, rather than cede the floor to the very human-rights-abusing states Ms. Bayefsky criticizes.

Anne Bayefsky

July 27, 2006

Anne Bayefsky

Ms. Hicks claims the Human Rights Council should not be judged by its treatment of Israel. Even at the procedural level, Israel is the only UN state or observer denied entry into strategic meetings of regional groups held throughout the Council session. But, Ms. Hicks suggests, treating the Jewish state differently than all other countries is a problem for a small proportion of the world’s population, and the concern is therefore narrow-minded and parochial. 

The attitude is identical to that adopted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the 2001 UN Durban World Conference on Racism. At Durban, HRW, along with other international NGOs, refused to cast a vote against an NGO declaration that said Zionism (the self-determination of the Jewish people) was racism. In their view, the declaration’s inclusion of many “voices of victims” took precedence over the Jewish problem.

The same approach was never suggested to the anti-apartheid movement for a very good reason. In the words of the UN Charter, international peace and security are premised on the equality of all nations large and small, while human rights protection is rooted in the equality of all men and women. The discrimination and demonization of the Jewish state and the Jewish people isn’t a “procedural” blip or an “unreasonable” standard. It destroys the very foundation of the human rights movement.

Points of information:

  • The Council’s anti-Israel resolution “Decides to dispatch an urgent fact-finding mission headed by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967”—which as his title and mandate clearly indicate does anything but address the situation as a whole.
  • There are many situations the Council "should" have addressed by adopting a tough resolution, as well as holding an immediate special session, such as the thousands dead and dying every month in Darfur and Zimbabwe. It didn’t.
  • The universal periodic review (UPR) is widely understood as a substitute for country-specific condemnation (except for Israel). The Organization of the Islamic Conference insists the outcome of the UPR “should be a consensual summary”—consensus to include the states being reviewed! 
  • Twenty-one of the forty-seven elected states fail to embody the minimum characteristics to be ranked "free" by Freedom House. Nine of the world’s worst human rights abusers (“not free”) are members. The balance of power is held by the Asian and African groups, where sixteen of the twenty-six members are not considered “free.”

The Council’s formative period is, as the United States foresaw, an embarrassment to any government serious about human rights.

Peggy L. Hicks

July 26, 2006

Peggy Hicks

Ms. Bayefsky condemns the Human Rights Council for being preoccupied with Israel, but it should be judged on how it addresses human rights challenges worldwide, not only on how it treats Israel. From the aftermath of the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan to the continuing crisis in Darfur, there are plenty of serious human rights situations which the Council should take up. But the Council’s report card should at least take account of its grades for the whole year, not just its score on the first exam. It was always understood that the Council’s first session would deal with the processes necessary to set up a new institution, and that the bulk of its work would not start until September.

The Council was right to choose to discuss the situation in Gaza—the situation was and remains a deteriorating human rights crisis. We agree that the Council’s efforts fell short by failing to address acts of violence by Palestinian armed groups, although that problem was partially remedied in the special session’s call for a fact-finding mission on the situation as a whole. But the Council’s flawed consideration of one of the world’s most intractable human rights situations at its inaugural session is hardly a reasonable basis for pulling the plug. 

The Council has three more meetings in its first year during which human rights issues involving numerous countries will be discussed, and additional special sessions could be called. My organization, Human Rights Watch, will be working hard to ensure that the Council scrutinizes the human rights records of several key violators and provides effective follow up. A system of “universal periodic review” of each UN member state will also be implemented.

Ms. Bayefsky also condemns the absence of criteria for Council membership.  But the most obvious criteria which could be imposed—a requirement that members have ratified the core human rights treaties—would have excluded the United States, a result Ms. Bayefsky could hardly desire. Recognizing this conundrum, supporters of a strong Council worked to change the electoral process as an alternative means to improved membership. And it worked. The result is a body in which more than three-quarters of the members are considered democracies. Surely we can no longer speak of Council being “hijacked” by “forces opposed to democracy, freedom and rights on a global scale.” Indeed, the United States could have played an important role in supporting those principles by participating in the Council during this formative period.

Anne Bayefsky

July 25, 2006

Anne Bayefsky

The UN Human Rights Commission was the UN’s lead human rights body. Widely discredited, it had been chaired in recent years by Libya, and had included members such as China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Those most opposed to human rights in their own backyards were responsible for identifying and protecting the human rights of their neighbors.

The absence of membership criteria had real consequences. Thirty percent of resolutions critical of the human rights record of specific states adopted over four decades were directed at Israel alone. Not one resolution condemning states like Syria, China, or Zimbabwe was ever adopted. The egregious discrimination against the Jewish state was the classic diversionary tactic.

The presence or absence of rights-respecting criteria for membership was the central issue in determining the prospect of change, but the [Human Rights] Council introduced only one membership qualification—geography. The “improved” election procedures asked candidates to make declarations about their splendid human rights records and future intentions. In came the promissory notes from some of the most notorious liars of our times.

Newly elected members include China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The Organization of the Islamic Conference staged a coup—they took over a majority of both the African and Asian regional groups, which together control 55% of Council votes. 

The Council’s first session [which began June 19] “focused primarily on procedural matters”? The reality includes these decisions:

  • Five items for discussion were agreed on—“the situation of human rights in Palestine and the other occupied Arab territories” (Israelis have no human rights), “support for the Abuja Peace Agreements” (mentioning Sudan a no-no), and three thematic issues.
  • All future Council sessions will have an anti-Israeli agenda item.
  • Only the UN Special Rapporteur on Israel will have an indefinitely extended tenure.
  • Only one resolution condemning human rights violations by a state anywhere in the world was adopted—on Israel. 
  • The first emergency session would be held only three days later—on Israel. 

The special session adopted another resolution condemning Israel—so one-sided that an amendment to refer to “Palestinian armed groups” failed.

Country-specific score for the Council? Israel: 100%. Rest of the world: 0.

Ambassador Bolton’s prediction of an inevitable credibility deficit rooted in structural defects proved correct. American membership would not have prevented its hijacking by forces opposed to democracy, freedom and rights on a global scale. It would only have brought credit where no credit is due.

Peggy L. Hicks

July 24, 2006

Peggy Hicks

Any intergovernmental process reflects, almost by definition, the strengths and weaknesses of the governments that are part of it. The new UN Human Rights Council which replaced the much-maligned UN Commission on Human Rights is no exception. But the United States, in voting against creating the Council and deciding not to run for election to the body, harmed its ability to promote human rights around the world and sent a signal that the world’s most powerful democracy is not serious about human rights.

The Human Rights Council is not perfect, but some of the most obvious flaws which afflicted the Commission have been addressed. Take the membership question: The U.S. was justifiably outraged that the Commission’s members included states such as Libya, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. With changed procedures that focused on candidates’ human rights records, a number of notorious human rights abusers—including Sudan, North Korea, and Zimbabwe—did not seek membership, and Iran and Venezuela fell short in their bids. Of course, the upgraded elections process wasn’t foolproof—perennial members Russia, China, and Cuba all retained their seats, joined by a number of other states with poor human rights records.

The Human Rights Council is also much better equipped to respond quickly to human rights violations whenever they occur. Unlike the Commission, which met only once a year, the new Council will meet at least three times a year, and special sessions can be called by one-third of the members.

Of course, the promise of these changes has yet to be fulfilled. The Council’s first session focused primarily on procedural matters, so the true test will come in future meetings. There are legitimate concerns at the Council’s handling of the situation in Gaza, and its decision to focus on that crisis to the exclusion of other pressing situations. It would be a mistake, however, to judge the Council on the basis of its actions on the occupied Palestinian territories, perhaps the most divisive and intractable conflict in the world. What we need now is for the Council to address other human rights crises such as Darfur and Uzbekistan.

Ambassador John Bolton accused Council supporters—which included virtually every democracy in the world—of mistaking "a caterpillar with lipstick" for a butterfly. The United States should actively support the Human Rights Council, even if the caterpillar may still need some work before it can fly.