Fighting the Good Fight

One year ago, the United States took its seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Our pledge as a new member was to exercise U.S. leadership for the purpose of strengthening human rights protections around the globe.

As the first U.S. ambassador to the council, I have articulated three priorities: 1) to make a difference on the ground for human rights defenders and victims; 2) to enhance the efficacy of the council in addressing crisis and chronic human rights situations; 3) to work cooperatively with other nations to lead the council toward fulfillment of its potential as the lead entity within the U.N. system for promoting and protecting human rights.

When we joined, we knew the council was an imperfect institution. In the debate over whether to seek membership, many thoughtful critics argued that the U.S. should not lend credibility to the council through its active participation.

Non-participation, however, proved itself an ineffective strategy for promoting and protecting human rights. The absence of U.S. engagement created a vacuum of leadership, which was quickly filled by the voices of those with whom we disagree on how to protect human rights. If the United States wants to exercise influence in the world on human rights, non-participation in the Human Rights Council — however flawed the council may be — is not the way.

In my limited time here, I have been very pleased by several developments that confirm U.S. participation was the correct decision.

First, by participating actively, listening carefully and speaking clearly about our values and priorities, we make a difference.

Second, the extent to which we share common ground with other nations around the world on human rights is significant, and we must do all that we can to capitalize on that common ground.

Third, when the United States speaks with authenticity and passion on human rights, it has a disproportionate impact. We must take advantage of that fact.

None of this is to argue that the Human Rights Council does not have significant flaws. In fact, the council is engaged in a serious self-reflection exercise for the purpose of improving its work and functioning with respect to its core mandate of protecting human rights. As with all political bodies, the process of finding consensus on how to improve the output of the council will inevitably be messy. But to underline the main point, if we do not sit at the table with others and do the work necessary to influence the process, U.S. values and priorities will not be reflected in the outcome.

What do we have to show for our engagement and participation to date?

In the past year, the United States has spoken out on serious human rights abuses in Iran, Burma, Sudan, China, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria, Russia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. With active U.S. leadership, the council authorized international mandates to closely monitor and address the human rights situations in Burma, North Korea, Cambodia and Sudan. In June, the United States co-led a cross-regional effort with 55 other nations to criticize the deplorable human rights situation in Iran and to express solidarity with victims and human rights defenders on the anniversary of the contested Iranian election.

Very importantly, we have vigorously and unequivocally protested the politicized efforts of some members to continually target Israel while ignoring serious problems in their own countries.

We have also worked cooperatively with governments such as those of Haiti, Somalia and Kyrgyzstan as they experienced crisis and sought help from the council to strengthen their human rights capabilities and help their countries rebuild.

We partnered with the government of Afghanistan to build international support for efforts to prevent attacks on Afghan school children, especially girls, who seek to be educated.

Along with our international partners and the NGO community, the United States has brought a new tone of constructive engagement to the council.

Fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion, women’s rights and protections for human rights defenders form the core of our agenda. We have worked actively to initiate positive dialogue and bridge ideological and regional divides, all while steadfastly guarding and championing fundamental freedoms.

Additionally, through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, which requires self-examination and public presentation of each country’s human rights record, we have stood with our partners to condemn some of the world’s worst human rights violators.

Some might argue that speaking out in an international forum has no impact on human rights. I beg to differ.

Governments and NGOs shed light on violations in the darkest corners of the world by speaking out at the Human Rights Council. Victims of human trafficking, religious discrimination, and government abuse have personally thanked me for acknowledging their struggles from the floor of the council.

Time and again human rights defenders underscore the importance of our public statements as an essential tool against government repression. The power of truthful words, spoken by the United States, should never be denigrated or underestimated. Those words provide hope and courage to those who fight against the worst rights abuses.

U.S. engagement at the Human Rights Council is working. It takes time but the effects are real, as demonstrated by the concrete examples above.

Some erroneously argue that the council’s failings prove the task is too difficult, that it is a waste of time and resources, and we should pack up and go home. This perspective reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of our role and belies a lack of confidence in the power of U.S. leadership.

Now, more than ever, as it engages in a full review of its practices, the council needs robust U.S. participation. The United States should never relinquish authority on human rights, especially in an international forum. For as long as we are members, our job is to give voice to the voiceless and defend the fundamental freedoms we cherish.

Eileen Donahoe, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council.