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