Esther Brimmer Headshot

Quiet Progress on Human Rights in Geneva

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Just over a year ago, the United States became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Contrary to some expectations, the Obama Administration's decision to engage with the 46 other countries rather than sit on the sidelines has produced real results. We are not blind to the Council's flaws, nor will we relax our efforts at continued reform. Yet in just one year, we have been able to make important strides in improving the work of the Human Rights Council.

Forging international agreements on universal values takes time and patience, and progress comes step by step. That's all the more reason to note when important advances are made. At the most recent session, with active advocacy of the United States, the Human Rights Council endorsed a new special investigator to support the rights of assembly and association, created a new mechanism to fight discrimination against women, and renewed its commitment to monitor human rights in Sudan.

Freedoms of assembly and association are essential to democracy -- just look at Poland's Solidarity movement and South Africa's anti-Apartheid movement. When governments crack down on the rights of citizens to work together, societies stagnate. As President Obama noted last month, the "arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change." He called civil society the "conscience of our community." While certain governments expressed a desire to limit the range of freedom of association protected, they were not able to undermine the strong consensus in supporting the new mandate. And in the end, with a strong diplomatic effort by the United States and our partners, the Council unanimously created an independent investigator to promote these rights and help hold governments accountable, answering the call earlier this year by Secretary Clinton for the Human Rights Council to defend this core freedom.

The Human Rights Council also created a panel to fight discrimination against women worldwide. The panel will press to end laws around the world that constrain women's advancement. While some governments want to restrict women, others just need advice and help on updating their laws. The panel will provide expertise on how to overcome such barriers.

With less than 100 days to go until the independence referendum for Southern Sudan, human rights violations there could spark violent conflict. During this session, the Human Rights Council also extended the mandate of the only independent, internationally-mandated human rights monitor focused on Sudan. Some countries objected to this extension, on the basis that the Khartoum government did not want to be subject to human rights scrutiny. But the United States was instrumental in building a worldwide coalition, including some African states, to support this work, thereby sending a signal to Sudan that the world will be watching the human rights situation closely during this period of political uncertainty.

Critics have thrown around oversimplified opinions at why we should not be in the Human Rights Council, mainly because of the Council's disproportionate focus on Israel and the participation of governments that make a mockery of human rights. These are very serious flaws and must be fixed, but these critics do not offer the full story. The landmark achievements on the right to assembly and women's rights, two results that would not have been possible without concerted U.S. engagement, show that the Council can make a positive difference on human rights.

Fighting back threats to basic rights remains a continuing challenge, given the membership on the Human Rights Council. But in this area, too, U.S. engagement has benefited the Human Rights Council's ability to carry out its vital role, by working to keep some of the worst human rights abusers from winning election to the Council.

This past session also convened international debates on some of the most pressing human rights issues of our day. These included the horrific situation of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the political fragility in Somalia. Governments from all over the globe listened and offered concrete solutions to how the global community can help.

"So we stand up for universal values because it's the right thing to do," President Obama said at the UN General Assembly in September. And as our Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Eileen Donahoe, has put it, "The United States should never relinquish authority on human rights, especially in an international forum." Belonging to the Human Rights Council reflects this country's deep commitment to human rights values. But it has proven to be more than just the right thing to do. America is intent on transforming the Council into a place where countries can take a real stand on human rights. Although our ambitions for the Human Rights Council are far from fully realized, it is clear that U.S. interests - and the cause of human rights worldwide - have been advanced by our decision to join the Human Rights Council. After all, ours is a century that demands the United States be a global leader and participant, not just an observer on the sidelines.