U.S. Takes Its Lumps at the U.N. Human Rights Council: Is it Worth It?

by Julian Ku

I understand the rationale behind the Obama Administration’s policy of engagement with the U.N. Human Rights Council.  So I understand why U.S. delegates subjected themselves to sharp and sometimes ridiculous criticism by other states during a session yesterday on United States human rights practices.

A delegation of top officials, led by Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer, gave diplomats at the U.N. Human Rights Council a detailed account of U.S. human rights shortcomings and the Obama administration’s efforts to redress them. It marked the first time the United States has subjected its rights record to examination before the Geneva-based council, as part of a procedure that requires all states to allow their counterparts to grade their conduct.

Several delegations camped out overnight to be first in line to criticize Washington, with the initial few speakers including CubaIran and Venezuela.

The United States’ most vociferous critics – Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea and Venezuela – opened the session with a string of highly critical accounts of U.S. policies, denouncing detention policies from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay and characterizing the embargo on Cuba as an act of genocide. Cuba and Nicaragua also called for the release of five Cuban intelligence officials held by U.S. authorities on espionage charges and for the prosecution of Luis Posada Carriles, the alleged mastermind of the 1976 terrorist bombing of a Cuban airliner.

“The United States of America, since its very origin, has used force indiscriminately as the central pillar of its policy of conquest and expansionism, causing death and destruction,” said Nicaragua’s envoy, Carlos Robelo Raffone. “We would like to forget the past . . . but unfortunately, the United States of America, which pretends to be the guardian of human rights in the world, questioning other countries, has been and continues to be the one which most systematically violates human rights.”

All of this is a bit hard to swallow (do we really need to hear from North Korea on human rights? And would human rights really be better off if, say Nicaragua or Venezuela was guarding it?). But it might be worth swallowing hypocrisy if, say, down the road, U.S. criticisms of other countries had some impact or influence.

But I think it is fair to say that the UN Human Rights Council is almost completely a political show without any serious policy impact or legal significance.  There is no evidence that states change their behavior due to the HRC’s criticism.  Does anyone think Cuba will suddenly release political prisoners due to HRC criticism?  Moreover, as far as I can tell, the HRC sessions use human rights law as political slogans, but nothing more.  No one attempts to seriously apply legal principles to measure human rights behavior.  If they did, they wouldn’t be able to claim with a straight face that the embargo on Cuba is “genocide.”

The HRC has no legally binding authority (or much moral authority) anyway.  Mostly, it just serves to further damage the U.N.’s image in the United States, a dangerous thing to do now that the Republican House is back in charge of U.N. funding.


9 Responses

  1. ==All of this is a bit hard to swallow (do we really need to hear from North Korea on human rights? And would human rights really be better off if, say Nicaragua or Venezuela was guarding it?). But it might be worth swallowing hypocrisy if, say, down the road, U.S. criticisms of other countries had some impact or influence.==

    This is a tu quoque. It does not matter whether one is a hypocrite, what it matters is whether one has a good argument. Saying that Johnny killed Billy is equally true/false whether it is said by Hitler or by Mother Theresa. It would be funny to say that a guy in Guantanamo does not have human rights anymore since Iran criticizes U.S. for violating them.

    It is more troubling that other states, that are considered democratic and respecting the human rights, do not criticize U.S.

  2. I don’t really understand blog posts and articles that question whether the universal periodic review is “worth it,” or describe the US as “subjecting itself” to this process – as if the U.S. has a choice.  It is mandated by the General Assembly that every UN Member State takes part in the UPR.  It would have been more bizarre for the U.S. Government to refuse to participate (even North Korea showed up, though they didn’t seem to accept any recommendations).

    Also, articles like the one you cited seem to misconstrue the process itself.  States are not “grading” the United States per se.  If you look at UPR’s website, it seems like States comment on the human rights situation of the country under review and then offer recommendations.  Those recommendations are the more relevant outcome, and States can choose whether to accept or reject them.  I assume the bizarre recommendations from Iran, North Korea, etc. will be rejected.  As for the commentary on the U.S.’s human rights record, what’s to stop countries like Iran and Venezuela from making similar comments in other situations, like the HRC’s regular sessions or the UN General Assembly?  They can, and they do, so why try to avoid that situation in this case and create a bad precedent for other States?

    That being said, I completely agree with your point about the inefficacy of the HRC in general.  But I see the UPR process as one of the few positive things the Council has going for it.

  3. Much like James I have an issue with the post, but I would go a bit further. Why is the focus always on the handful of nations that will ignore what the Council says. Will the Council’s word change North Korea’s terrible human rights policies? No. Will it change Iran’s horrendous record? No.

    But is the same true when the Council criticizes Norway, Argentina, Germany, Chile etc.? Also no – it has an impact in that respect.

    I am just as sad as anyone else that there are so many countries with a terrible record on the Council. But that does not mean that everything it does is automatically a political show. Just some things. And certainly, some of the criticism of the US falls into the show aspects. But not all of it. And let’s face it: the only way the Council could have a good image with Republicans in the US is – besides changing its composition (which would be desirable) – stating that the US is the greatest beacon for human rights with a sparkling white record. And whitewashing for public relations would be just the type of political show that you accuse the council of…

  4. Response…were gonna get rid of the U.N. they are a nothing but a hemmorhiod on the ass of america

  5. I agree with some of the previous comments. Criticizing the UPR’s effectiveness by reference to recalcitrant States like Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and the United States is a strawman fallacy. The UPR might prove to be far more effective with State who genuinely want to engage in constructive dialogue, and that do adopt certain recommendations and try to implement them.

  6. Hi Julian,

    I’ve had similar thoughts, based on a review of Canada’s experience with UPR, as well as Canada’s experience in general as a member of the Council from 2006-2009 (prior to US membership), with much of the Council’s contentious activity being the result of bloc voting. The UPR process has a number of serious flaws, including a lack of safeguards to ensure the veracity of information relied upon, and a lack of independent analysis and context for evaluating that information. Various voices are missing from the process, including lawyers at the coal face in immigration hearings etc, national bar associations, and academics. The NGO information is typically the sum total of information provided by various NGOs, each with their own interest area, and lacks an overall assessment, and the dialogic review is an uneven opportunity for diplomats to ask questions that represent their state interests. See further: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1518526

    Best wishes,

  7. The premise behind the Human Rights Council as it now exists seems to be that if people talk to each other insincerely for a long enough period, they will eventually change and begin to talk to each other sincerely. It’s even conceivable that that might happen — but the sincerity would not be something anyone could welcome.

  8. I rarely blog these days, but I must take the pen to defend Julian’s post. The UN Human Rights Council is a pathetic, dishonest sham. The countries that spoke on Friday against the United States cannot measure up against American accomplishments in the realm of freedom and prosperity. Yet the worst aspect of the HRC is that the whole exercise is designed to obscure the scourge of state repression. That is why the Council focuses on things like the “defamation”” of Islam (that is, the Council advocates suppressing speech) and generally avoids discussing traditional civil and political rights –unless, of course, the accused are the United States or Israel. Those behind the HRC Council are not human rights advocates or enforcers. They are human rights impostors.

  9. What a waste of time to let countries like N. Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran criticize the US about human rights.  At least I know as a citizen of the USA that I won’t be treated like a peasant, a slave, or an animal.  While the US has serious problems historically, we at least practice a very high standard of human rights currently with our own citizens.  As soon as those criticizing countries catch up, then maybe someday the US will have a better reason to care about what they have to say.  Until then, they’ve only succeeded at exposing themselves as complete hypocrites. It is ridiculous for the US to patronize them in a UN forum.

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