U.S. Dedication to Human Rights Recognized in First Year on New Council


Joshua Cooper
UNA-USA Human Rights Task Force
Mid-Pacific Representative to UNA-USA Council of Chapters and Divisions

The United States of America is a first time member in the historic UN Human Rights Council created by resolution 60/251.

The United States of America received 167 votes on 9 May 2009 when it sought a seat on the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council. The U.S. will hold one of the seven seats of the Western Europe and Other States group (WEOG) for a three year term starting officially on 19 June 2009.

UN Human Rights Council members are directly elected by an absolute majority of the 192 UN General Assembly members, or 97 votes. The US never sought a seat since the first election on 9 May 2006.  During the 62 sessions of the precursor body, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the US held a seat every year since its inception except one in 2002.

The United States didn’t wait for the term to officially start before making its political presence felt at the UN Human Rights Council. The US Mission to the UN in Geneva invited states and civil society “to an important forum: In Pursuit of the Dream: Race and Tolerance in the United States in the 21st Century” featuring a panel of government officials in international affairs and civil rights along with a leader from one of the leading NGOs in America.

Only hours after President Obama made his historic Cairo Speech on a new beginning with the Muslim world, the panel took place in the Palais des Nations in Geneva attracting one of the largest member state presence for a parallel side event since the UN Human Rights Council existence.

Esther Brimmer, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, opened the forum saying America is back reengaging with the global community on important issues of human rights. Wade Henderson, President Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, spoke about the continuing challenges regarding race but also cited America’s commitment to keep organizing to improve human rights condition in the country.

During the first three years, many players in the UN Human Rights Council believed Canada’ comment and votes reflected the will of the Conservative administration of North America, including the United States.  One final speech by the US before it assumed its official seats regarding indigenous peoples and the 2nd session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to take place in August 2009.

Canada spoke first and the US followed with both being the only state proposing to postpone the 2nd session and having the UN Human Rights Council review the agenda at its 12th session approving more appropriate agenda items.  Those were the only two countries to support such a motion.  The US Delegation stated on June 9 about the agenda item referring to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP), “The intent for the Expert Mechanism was to bring States and Indigenous Peoples together and further dialogue and research on better ways to work together and advance the lives of indigenous peoples. In our view, the topic being proposed by the Mechanism is one that will lead to divisiveness between States and Indigenous Peoples.”  It is important to note at that time only Canada, New Zealand and US had not adopted the UN DRIP.

The U.S. has been earning respect though with NGOs and the nations participating in the UN Human Rights Council in its inaugural year as a member. The U.S. has placed numerous experts in human rights in the seat being the placard Etats Unis rather than leave it empty or filled with a summer intern. The US has a very strong team lead by Eileen Donahoe named US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council  since March this year. Also, during the three sessions, the US has been rotating a delegation displaying regional expertise as well as specific rights knowledge on the agenda topics. The US has also been working diligently and diplomatically to promote and protect human rights around the world.  For the US to stand for a seat with the new Obama administration was significant and has been recognized by states.

As Ether Brimmer noted on the 200th anniversary of Argentina in Buenos Aires, “We have made a commitment to working from within the Human Rights Council with a broad cross section of member states to strengthen and reform the HRC and enable it to live up to the vision that was crafted when it was created.”

The US has prioritized partnering with countries “…to slowly begin to reverse the Council’s troubling pattern of minimizing attention to urgent situations,” Bremmer continued.

The highlight Bremmer noted in the first year regarding the US priorities was, “During its June session, the Council passed a U.S.-initiated resolution responding to the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, the first concrete action on this issue by a UN body. The speech with which the Council acted on this issues is only the most recent in a series of signs of the progress, however incremental, that has been made since the United States took our seat last September.”

It is not only at the UN Human Rights Council that the US has offered a more active engagement in the UN human rights machinery. At the 9th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2010, the Ambassador Susan Rice announced in the UN General Assembly, ““…I am pleased to announce that the United States has decided to review our position regarding the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We recognize that, for many around the world, this Declaration provides a framework for addressing indigenous issues….And as we move ahead, we look forward to consulting extensively with our valued and experienced colleagues in the federally recognized Indian tribes and interested nongovernmental organizations.”

More importantly, the U.S. held a meeting with its extensive delegation from many agencies and indigenous peoples at the U.S. mission the next day to begin the dialogue.

The upcoming 15th session from 13 – 30 September will mark one year of active membership. The U.S. has participated actively in the interactive dialogue with the over a dozen special rapporteurs The U.S. will continue its participation on indigenous issues.  UN Special Rapporteur on Fundamental Freedom and Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples Jim Anaya will present his report and also the renewal of his mandate.  The adoption of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will also be significant as the progress report on the right to participate in decision-making will be discussed and debated.

The United States of America  first year on the UN Human Rights Council has been a drastic improvement in the global discussion on promotion and protection of human rights where the usual participation was marked by an empty seat.  Still more remains to be done for the remaining two years. However a new direction of engagement is essential for the UN Human Rights Council to meet its mandate.

Bremmer’s perspective illustrates the US philosophy, “ This progress, however modest, suggest that continued U.S. engagement on the Council is valuable….The council is only as good as the member that participate in it. By removing ourselves from it, we would allow the work of the Council to be defined by others, and do nothing to advance the cause of human rights multilaterally. By working together to improve this body, however, we can advance that cause – even as we point out where the Council continues to fall short.”

The most important reflection of the US commitment to the UN Human Rights Council wasn’t its words but its actions. The U.S. will be a state under review at the 9th session of the Universal Periodic Review. The U.S. actually submitted its report on the U.S. human rights record on time. It will be important to see if the U.S. continues to lead by example through the review on November 5 and most importantly with the adoption at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council and its subsequent implementation in the United States of America.