As part of its long-standing study of the UN human rights institutions, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement for Human Rights (JBI) convened a meeting in December 2011 with Suzanne Nossel, who had just stepped down after two years as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations. Nossel discussed the impact of U.S. membership in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and prospects for reform.
Nossel served at the State Department for two years, responsible for multilateral human rights and other issues, and played a leading role on U.S. policy at the UN Human Rights Council. She left the government in November 2011, and, when she spoke at JBI, was a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, prior to taking up a new position as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.
In her remarks, Nossel frankly assesses the challenges she faced coming to the State Department as the U.S. re-joined the Human Rights Council (HRC), a body restructured from the UN Commission for Human Rights, criticized for its bias and cynical politicization by the world's worst human rights offenders.
During her two years in office, she and others were able to return a scrutiny to massive human rights violators such as Iran, Libya and Syria through new mandates to investigate situations. To some extent, they were also able to reduce somewhat the obsessive focus on Israel as compared to other countries, although the structural bias against Israel within the UN system continues.
In a lively question and answer session, Nossel addressed the imbalances at the HRC and US efforts to creatively push the human rights agenda, and debated the opportunities and challenges posed by the Arab Spring. Ultimately, Nossel encouraged the US government as well as NGOs to continue to participate in the HRC, to make an impact on human rights situations.
JBI Director Felice Gaer, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Suzanne Nossel, and JBI Chair E. Robert Goodkind at the JBI event.
E. Robert Goodkind, chair of JBI's Administrative Council, moderated the meeting and described JBI's decades of work assisting in the work of the former body, the 60-year-old UN Commission on Human Rights and JBI's position taken initially in 2006 that the U.S. should seek election to the new Council.
In 2006, the UN General Assembly voted to create the Human Rights Council (HRC), the primary UN political organ for human rights. Representatives of governments, not independent experts, comprise the Council’s membership.
As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan explained, because it lacked credibility and professionalism, the former Commission had largely been "captured" by States with poor human rights records. Those States had turned the Commission into a highly politicized body when it came to identifying countries engaged in severe violations of human rights. The UN's human rights body also displayed a structural bias against Israel -a separate agenda item only for Israel, a rapporteur that does not need annual renewal unlike very other situation, and other items -- which remains at the HRC to this day.
Even so, JBI hoped to make improvement in the restructured HRC in some areas:
1. Membership: electing more credible, rights-respecting States as members, following commitments by States seeking election, and a new rule permitting suspension of a member.
2. Ending the politicized scrutiny of Israel which had taken place under a special agenda item and brought routine condemnation, unlike any other countries.
3. Ensuring scrutiny of all countries through a new “Universal Periodic Review” procedure, which would examine human rights in each of the 193 UN members, and ideally bring new accountability and fairness into the Council’s operations.
Repeatedly from 2006 through 2009, JBI urged the U.S. to rejoin the Council, despite disappointment with the new body, which continued to elect gross human rights violators such as Cuba, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (even if Iran, Venezuela and Belarus were defeated). The Council also continued the biased treatment of Israel; in its first years, 12 country-specific resolutions were passed -- nine on Israel and three on Sudan. Four Special Sessions were held; three on Israel and one on Darfur, and the stand-alone agenda remained with other imbalances.
Surely a low point for the UN was the Council’s resolution congratulating Sri Lanka for its military victory, avoiding mention of allegations of human rights violations resulting in the 40,000 civilian deaths during and after the conflict. The Council passed troublesome resolutions endorsing the concept of “defamation of religions,” which suggests speech should be curbed to prohibit criticism of a religion -- which in the case of many of the countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meant prohibiting criticism of theocratic states themselves.
In early 2009, JBI urged the Obama Administration to use "smart power" – a term coined by Suzanne Nossel in her article of that title -- and to display leadership at the Council. In March 2009 the Administration announced a change in policy: it would run for election to the Council, although it saw the Council as “a flawed body that has not lived up to its potential.”
Suzanne Nossel's Reflections
Suzanne Nossel described her own background that inspired a lifelong dedication to human rights. “Looking back to what first sparked my own interest in human rights issues, it has everything to do growing up as an American Jew,” she said. Her mother's parents were refugees from Nazi Germany who settled in Cape Town, South Africa in the 1930s, leaving many relatives behind. As a child, she visited relatives in apartheid South Africa. “I puzzled over the disconnect between what I saw there, and the liberal values of my suburban Jewish Day School,” she said of the apartheid era. “I have vibrant memories of being mobilized as part of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, marching down Fifth Avenue into Dag Hammarsjkold Plaza and standing with thousands to demand respect for human rights. She has frequently visited relatives in Israel, saying “It's a place where I feel very comfortable and at home.
In April 2006, U.S. Representative Tom Lantos said that the United States "shot itself in the foot" when the Bush Administration announced that it would not seek a seat in the newly formed United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). The Council had replaced the UN's Commission on Human Rights, notorious for having Libya as chair and relentlessly focusing on Israel to the exclusion of other human rights situations around the world.
The U.S. and others grew frustrated that negotiations over the new body had not gone far enough in establishing criteria for membership and other ways to ensure greater credibility. Even so, Congressman Lantos said there were tools to “dismantle the myth of moral equivalency that polluted the U.N. human rights efforts” and it was time to end the “self-inflicted wound” of not having a U.S. presence on the Council.
As noted, the U.S. return came at a low point – the Sri Lanka resolution and a Sudan resolution where the Council came within one vote of ending the mandate of the independent expert amid major abuses.
In its first three years, the Council had not established a single new country-specific special procedure, and inexplicably had decided to end mandates on Belarus and Cuba. Yet over that same three year period, the Council had held five separate special sessions targeting Israel.
Even so, Chairman Lantos hoped to make the Council a credible, responsive, and effective body. President Obama and Secretary Clinton concluded that human rights was too central a U.S. priority to cede the territory to Cuba, Libya, Iran and others working against American interests and values.
Some human rights advocates urged the US not to focus on country situations at the new UN rights body.
“They argued that too many delegations opposed the ‘naming and shaming’ of human rights violators and would vote our resolutions down, dealing the U.S. humiliating defeats,” said Nossel. A club mentality meant ambassadors protected each other from scrutiny, lest the tables be someday turned on them.
Yet, despite these challenges, US engagement made a difference:
o The U.S. led efforts to hold three HRC Special Sessions on Syria and establishment of a high-profile Commission of Inquiry headed by Brazilian jurist Paolo Sergio Pinhiero; by contrast the UN Security Council was hopelessly deadlocked on the subject, with Russia and China jointly vetoing a proposed resolution.
o In February 2011, the United States worked with the EU and others on an emergency session condemning Qadhafi's abuses against his own people, launching an international Commission of Inquiry in Libya, and recommending suspension of Libya's rights of membership in the HRC. This resolution – passed by consensus - catalyzed a dramatic escalation of action within the UN system and beyond. Having witnessed the unprecedented consensus achieved in the fractious, dysfunctional 47-member Council, the UN Security Council passed an unprecedented resolution demanding an end to the violence and referring the situation to the International Criminal Court.
o In March, the U.S. helped restore the Special Rapporteur on Iran, abolished by one vote when the U.S. lost its seat at the Human Rights Commission in 2001. When the U.S. rejoined the Council, it was committed to bringing it back. The impact has already been felt: the Iranian government's self-proclaimed human rights committee has said it plans to file suit against the Special Rapporteur, who has been accused of “lies and fabrications”
o In December 2010, the United States worked closely with African delegations to galvanize support for a special session on the situation in Cote d'Ivoire, sending its recalcitrant leader Laurent Gbagbo a clear message that atrocities would not be ignored. This led directly to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry for Cote d'Ivoire in the March 2011 session and the creation of an ongoing mandate to report on that country.
o The U.S. has led efforts to adopt resolutions on new governments in the transitions of Kyrgyzstan, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Tunisia, South Sudan, and Libya
o The Council took historic and assertive action to highlight violence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons around the world. This was the first UN resolution recognizing gay rights as human rights.
o In 2010 the U.S. led a coalition including Nigeria and Indonesia to create a new rapporteurship focused on freedom of assembly and association. In addition to documenting violations of these fundamental freedoms in the context of the Arab Spring, this rapporteur investigates use of restrictive laws and registration requirements impeding NGO work.
o In September 2010, the U.S. supported the establishment of a Working Group of Independent Experts to examine laws that discriminate against women (a longstanding JBI goal).
o Through an 18 month campaign, in March 2009 the U.S. finally put to rest the pernicious concept of "defamation of religion" - an idea promoted by the Organization of the Islamic Community that encourages that insults to religious groups should be met with bans and suppression of free speech.
Nossel personally travelled to Islamabad to make the case to the Pakistani government that global blasphemy laws are not the answer to religious intolerance. In March 2011, these efforts in a resolution that rejects the punitive approach and instead embraces dialogue and education as the way to promote tolerance. Secretary Clinton has now put her personal weight behind this initiative, working with the Chairman of the Islamic Conference to make sure it is implemented.
“Resolution by resolution and session by session, the U.S. has changed the dynamics at the Council,” said Nossel. The U.S. has encouraged countries to vote based on principle rather than rigid regional bloc ties, and has had some important successes in marshalling cross-regional coalitions that make it harder for the Russians, Chinese or Cubans to block action.
These efforts do make a difference Nossel explained. One reason the U.S. prioritized Iran was the insistence of Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and other advocates in and outside of the country that, more than anything else, the regime in Tehran cares what the UN says.
Action on Syria and other situations, efforts like establishment of a new UN norm on LGBT rights, these were all possible because the U.S. came to the Council. “By absenting itself the U.S. would cede the floor to those who wish to ignore, cover-up, offer excuses and protect the perpetrators,” said Nossel. “When the U.S. is present, the U.S. can expose the facts, defend the truth and insist on accountability.
The U.S. remains disappointed with the lack of progress on normalization of Israel, and Nossel was particularly disappointed. The U.S. rejects efforts to single out Israel and has taken other steps to normalize Israel’s status, such as bringing Israel into the JUSCANZ consultative group (Japan, U.S., Canada, Australia, Norway, New Zealand.); winning the appointment of Frances Raday, an Israeli academic, to the HRC's expert working group. Before the U.S. joined the Council: more than half of the country-specific resolutions were anti-Israel (56 percent); today this number has dropped to 30 percent; before the U.S. joined the Council: 5 out of 9 country-specific special sessions were about Israel (56 percent); now there have been none in more than two years.
At the same time, the Human Rights Council still has a standing agenda item devoted to Israel, where every other country is addressed under a common agenda item, and Israel remains the only country present in Geneva not to be a member of a regional group. These two examples of egregious structural bias are a stain on the Council's reputation. “The U.S. would love to address them and has proposed many times that the Council do so. The obstacle is that, as evidenced by the overwhelming vote at UNESCO in favor of Palestinian membership, Israel's support within the UN system - even from traditional friends in Europe - is at a low,” said Nossel.