On February 2, 2016, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) and the United Nations Foundation (UNF) convened a discussion with Ambassador Keith Harper, United States Representative to the UN Human Rights Council, entitled “The United States and the UN Human Rights Council: The Next Chapter.” An abridged edited version of the event, created by the Jewish Broadcasting Service, is available above.
JBI Director Felice Gaer moderated the discussion offering background on the history of the Human Rights Council from its creation in 2006 following the dissolution of the Commission on Human Rights and including the United States’ membership in the Council which began in 2009. She explained new elements of the Council’s structure and function, drawing attention to its performance on Item 4 which examines the human rights practices of all countries throughout the world, compared to the treatment of Item 7 which singles out human rights in the “Occupied Palestinian territories,” the only situation in the world to be targeted by a separate agenda item.
Of the 33 country specific resolutions the Council adopted in its first three years (prior to US engagement), 17 condemned Israel. Since the Council’s creation, there have usually been 5 or 6 annual country specific resolutions adopted on Israel, the only country to have consistently been the subject of that many or more country specific resolutions annually. The Council has also convened a highly disproportionate number of country specific “special sessions” focused on Israel.
Ambassador Harper provided an overview of the US's participation in the Council, the strategy of engagement, and the steps the US is hoping to take this year while off the Council. He explained “two undeniable truths:” first, the Council continues to elect bad actors to it, like China, Cuba, and Venezuela, and second, there is a “hyper-focus” on Israel which has been singled out unlike any other country. The ambassador stressed the US view that while no state should be free from scrutiny, “no state should be treated differently and without an even hand in the international human rights system.” He spoke about the Council’s achievements since US membership, emphasizing adoption of new country specific resolutions on some of the most egregious human rights abusers such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria. He cited advances such as new reporting mechanisms created to address thematic resolutions on freedom of association and assembly and on LGBTI persons. He confirmed that maintaining country specific resolutions on the world’s worst violators like Iran and North Korea and an increased focus on LGBTI issues are parts of the US’s ongoing agenda with the Council.
The ambassador further addressed the Council’s treatment of Israel. He explained that through continued involvement in the Council, the US is “chipping away” – albeit slowly – at the bias. In the three years prior to US engagement, the Council held 6 special sessions on Israel, whereas since the US became a member, in 2009, there have been 2 special sessions on Israel over the span of six years. While Israel is still condemned more than any other country, there has been a decline from the much greater disproportionate focus that existed in the Council’s first three years, prior to US engagement.
Harper stated that the bias the Council has shown against Israel is “the source of the greatest illegitimacy of the Council.” “There’s a pernicious quality to what’s happening,” he said, “It’s not just about criticizing a country. This is an attempt to de-legitimize a country and I think that’s quite a different thing,” which is why the US stands up to fight against it. Ambassador Harper emphasized that the US intends to continue to press for a decline in resolutions about Israel, and although the US will not be a voting member of the Council in 2016, the intent is to still be an active observer state impacting the downtrend. He stated that another US goal for the Council for this year is to ensure the Council widens its focus in fulfilment of its function, examining and reporting on the worst violators in the world, rather than continuing to focus so disproportionately on Israel.
Gaer remarked on a number of additional structural biases against Israel, including that the resolutions scrutinize only Israeli actions and not those of others within the same territory, that the special rapporteur on the situation has an unlimited term until the “end” of the problem whereas all other rapporteurs have one or two-year long terms, that there is a failure to address any action against Israel as constituting terrorism, and other items.
Following his remarks, Ambassador Harper addressed a variety of questions from the audience regarding the Council’s membership, the influence of the Council, US strategies of continued engagement, and responses to the recent crackdown in many countries on human rights groups. The ambassador closed by explaining that while the US will not have a vote at the Council in 2016, the US will remain fully engaged in the Council and exert its influence in the other avenues available to it.
The event concluded with Gaer directing attention to JBI’s analysis of country specific resolutions since US engagement in the Council, which reveals that 29% of country specific resolutions throughout the Council’s 10 year history condemn Israel, whereas 52% of country specific resolutions from 2006-2008 condemned Israel. She also reminded the audience that US presence at the Council allows the US to challenge bad actors and bad actions, including the bias against Israel, and provides a critically important opportunity for US leadership on critical human rights issues.
Susan Myers, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the New York Office at UNF thanked the ambassador, and pointed out that the next administration has a clear path to run again for Council membership, as Ambassador Harper outlined.