U.S. Engagement at the Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council was first established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights which had been criticized as ineffective, politicized, and biased against Israel. Initially, the U.S. declined to run for a seat on the Council, and during its first several years, the new 47-member human rights body struggled to fulfill its mandate to promote and protect internationally recognized human rights. In 2009, however, the U.S. changed course and successfully ran for a seat on the Council. Since then, U.S. membership has produced tangible, positive outcomes on a number of fronts, making the institution a more effective advocate for human rights and producing progress on a number of key U.S. policy objectives.

Addressing Egregious Human Rights Abuses

The Council is bringing international attention to some of the world's most egregious human rights abusers and creating new mechanisms to spotlight and address serious human rights concerns. In 2011, the Council held special sessions on Syria and Libya, establishing Commissions of Inquiry to investigate gross and systematic violations of human rights in both countries, as well as a special rapporteur for longer term monitoring of the situation in Syria. The U.S. also helped lead an effort to create the Council's first new country-specific special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran.

Advancing Universal Rights

By promoting strong cross-regional dialogue, U.S. diplomats are using the Council to advance universal values. In June 2011, the Council took bold action to highlight violence and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) persons around the world, making it the first UN resolution to recognize that LGBT rights are human rights. U.S. diplomats also worked with member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to replace an annual resolution on religious defamation that proposed dangerous limitations on free speech with a new one on combating discrimination and violence based on religion.

Assisting Countries in Transition

With U.S. leadership, the Council initiated a new effort to focus on country-specific resolutions, encouraging countries in transition to uphold their human rights obligations. Since the U.S. joined the body, countries that have been added to the Council's agenda include Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, South Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Combating Selectivity

In October 2011, the Council completed the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, a peer review of the human rights records of all UN member states. For the first time, all countries were reviewed on an equal basis with the participation of governments as well as local, regional, and international NGOs. The UPR process also provides the U.S. with another global platform to publicly condemn and push for action on grave human rights violations in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and other countries.


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