What's Happening at the UN Human Rights Council’s 20th Session

June 27, 2012|By Deborah Brown, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) opened its 20th session in Geneva last week, and in her opening statement to the HRC, U.S. Ambassador Eileen C. Donahoe outlined an ambitious list of U.S priorities for the three week session. The U.S. delegation will continue to work to build a broad coalition of support for freedom of expression online, press forward on country-specific mandates, and develop new thematic resolutions.

Freedom of Expression Online

Building on continuing efforts at the HRC to promote and protect freedom of expression on the Internet, the U.S. delegation is working with Sweden and a cross-regional group of states to present a resolution on the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet. As previous initiatives at the HRC and other UN bodies demonstrate, bringing this topic to an intergovernmental body comes with certain risks. China, Russia, India, and Brazil have repeatedly attempted to use the UN to gain greater regulatory powers over the Internet. Sweden, the U.S., and their allies will have to be vigilant in keeping the focus on human rights and preventing this text from becoming another battleground for Internet governance.

Countries in Focus

A key priority for the U.S. since it joined the HRC three years ago has been to focus the body's attention on countries where egregious human rights violations are taking place.

At the 20th session, the U.S. has committed to reviving a mandate on the human rights situation in Belarus that had previously expired. The human rights situation in Belarus has deteriorated since the last presidential election and is headed toward a crisis. Passing country-specific resolutions at the HRC is always difficult because many countries from the global south oppose singling out specific countries in principle.

Human rights groups welcome this initiative, but argue that a number of other country-specific situations have eluded the HRC's attention and have urged the Administration to take them on, including those in Bahrain, Mali, and Eritrea. While pressuring the Obama Administration on Mali or Eritrea may be a matter of mustering the necessary political will, it would seem that U.S. action at the HRC on Bahrain is a non-starter because of the close alliance between the two countries. The Administration, which recently resumed its shipment of arms to the small island despite its continued crackdown on protests and denial of fundamental rights, has preferred to pursue bilateral solutions to the situation in Bahrain.

Key Issues to Monitor

Earlier in the week, the HRC held its annual discussion on women's human rights, which focused on remedies and reparations for women who have been subjected to violence, and on women human rights defenders. In this context, the U.S. has announced that it is working with a broad coalition of states ranging from Botswana to Slovakia to pursue a resolution on the right to a nationality, particularly for women and children, in order to underline the importance of the right to nationality for all – without discrimination.

At least 30 countries prevent women from acquiring, retaining or transferring citizenship to their children or their foreign spouses, and in some cases, nationality laws strip women of their citizenship if they marry someone from another country. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the UN's refugee agency late last year on the issue, saying, "In this compromised state, women and children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including gender-based violence, trafficking in persons, and arbitrary arrest and detention."

Syria has also remained on the HRC's agenda this session, with a briefing on the Secretary General's report, a statement from the Deputy Joint Arab League-UN Special Envoy for Syria, and an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria yesterday. The head of the Commission, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, just returned from his first trip to Damascus and is working to pave the way for further on-the-ground investigations of the atrocities in the country. Pinheiro and others detailed gross violations of human rights that are occurring regularly in the context of increasingly militarized fighting, characteristic of a non-international armed conflict, i.e. civil war. Meanwhile, the Syrian delegation stormed out of the session.

The Bigger Picture

The HRC has recently received recognition for its "newfound credibility as a human rights watchdog." In the words of Paula Schriefer, who recently took over the HRC portfolio at the U.S. Department of State, "It's becoming the new normal that the council does the right thing." The fact that Syria has been on the HRC’s agenda at every session since the crackdown began over a year ago is just one example of what Schriefer describes. The body is working around structural flaws, such as its built-in bias against Israel and weak membership criteria, to get some real work done. This is not easy to accomplish and requires sustained, strategic diplomacy, particularly from the United States. If the HRC is to grow into the preeminent global human rights watchdog it was intended to be, the United States must remain engaged – elections for another three year term are this fall. Strong and constructive American leadership at the Council is crucial to ensuring that it lives up to its founding principles and advances core U.S. human rights priorities.

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