For the past seven and a half years, the United States has devoted substantial diplomatic effort to improving the performance of the UN Human Rights Council, the preeminent intergovernmental body devoted to human rights. When the US began to engage with the Council in 2009, it identified two areas of the body’s performance as in particular need of improvement: (1) the number of human rights violators that the Council identified by name and targeted for scrutiny in its resolutions; and (2) the Council’s strikingly disproportionate focus on one State –Israel.
In an effort to review the effect of US engagement on the Council’s performance, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) has reviewed the number of “country-specific resolutions” adopted by the Council, the number of special sessions convened by the Council on human rights crises, and the number of independent “special procedure mandates” created by the Council to investigate country-specific and thematic human rights issues.
Our review reveals that US engagement has made a significant mark on the Council’s performance. In particular, US engagement brought about a significant increase in the number of Council resolutions that address specific human rights violations. For example, in 2015, the last year of the second US term of membership, the Council adopted 31 “country-specific” resolutions, more than twice as many as the Council adopted in 2006, 2007, or 2008. These resolutions address and call for further UN reporting on human rights violations in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Myanmar (Burma), South Sudan, Belarus, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Burundi, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Yemen, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Cambodia, and Ukraine. In 2015 the Council also adopted resolutions condemning human rights abuses perpetrated by the terrorist groups Da’esh and Boko Haram.
Moreover, the number of Israel-specific resolutions adopted by the Council declined during the period of US membership, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of all country-specific resolutions. From 2006 to 2008, the period of US disengagement from the Council, Israel was condemned in more than half (17 out of 33) of all country-specific resolutions. In contrast, in 2015 the Council adopted five resolutions condemning Israel, which constituted 19 percent of the country-specific resolutions adopted by the Council that year.
The US served two three-year terms on the Council, from 2009 to 2015. Procedural rules required the US to rotate off the Council in 2016. During this mandatory off-year, the US remained deeply engaged: the US maintained a dedicated Ambassador to the Council in Geneva who served as coordinator of the Western European and Others Group of States (WEOG) and continued to make the Council a diplomatic priority. This was reflected in the Council’s performance; the number of country-specific resolutions adopted in 2016 declined slightly, but not substantially, and by the end of the year the Council had adopted 27 country-specific resolutions.
The US has been re-elected to a three-year term of membership on the Council beginning in 2017, and thus far the Council has completed only one of its three annual sessions. There, the Council adopted more country-specific resolutions (15) than it did at the corresponding sessions in 2016 (12) and 2015 (12). The number of country-specific resolutions on Israel remained the same (5) from the Spring 2016 to Spring 2017 sessions.
Despite these positive changes, the Human Rights Council’s performance remains lacking in key respects. The Council continues to focus its attention exceedingly disproportionately on the human rights situation in Israel. It also has not adopted resolutions criticizing a number of States that bear responsibility for the commission of particularly serious violations of human rights, though groups of Member States have made joint statements expressing concern about human rights conditions on some of these countries, including China.
Nevertheless, this updated review demonstrates that US engagement has corresponded with a marked improvement in the Council’s performance. The findings suggest that this hard-earned progress might well be lost should the US retreat from its leadership role.
Our detailed documentation and analysis of trends over time, as well as background information, can be found in the full analysis below.
* In this study, the term “country-specific” is used to designate resolutions and special sessions that draw attention to particular human rights violations as opposed to thematic human rights issues. This term includes resolutions and special sessions that address specific countries and those that are primarily aimed at monitoring human rights abuses perpetrated by specific non-State actors, such as armed terrorist groups.