A story by CNSNews today discussed how the U.S. State Department has been quietly holding meetings and soliciting comments on America’s human rights record for inclusion in a report it must submit this fall to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). Designed to be an improvement over the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the HRC has proven gravely disappointing. In its first four years, the HRC has been weak and ineffectual in promoting fundamental human rights, in large part because influential countries opposed to strong HRC scrutiny of human rights (e.g., China and Cuba) and groups such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been able to negatively influence council deliberations, resolutions, and decisions.
Although frustrated with the neutered HRC, human rights advocates had held out hope that the saving grace of the Council would be the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Under the UPR, each of the U.N.’s 192 member states, including the sitting members of the HRC, must submit to a review of its human rights record. This was designed to prevent the HRC from emulating the old Commission’s practice selective of scrutiny. The U.S. report discussed in the CNSNEws story is the beginning of the process that every U.N. member state goes through once every four years under the Universal Periodic Review.
Unfortunately, the UPR process – as with the broader human rights agenda in the U.N. system – has been hijacked. As I detailed in a 2009 report, the UPR procedures virtually ensure that if a country wants to bury criticism, it can. Contributions to the process by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are strictly curtailed. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) distills and summarizes NGO reports. Many NGOs have complained that the document prepared by the OHCHR ignored or did not include key issues. In addition, a number of countries have used points of order and other procedures to intimidate NGOs from making statements or to strike their comments from the record if the NGOs did not strictly reference comments in the report.
This has resulted in farcical reviews of China, Cuba, and North Korea. China laughably claimed in its UPR report that it “adheres to the principle that all ethnic groups are equal and implements a system of regional ethnic autonomy in areas with high concentrations of ethnic minorities,” that elections are “democratic” and “competitive,” that “citizens enjoy freedom of speech and of the press,” and that China respects the right to religious freedom. Cuba’s UPR report to the council claimed that “Cuba’s democratic system is based on the principle of ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people'” and that the right to “freedom of opinion, expression and the press” is guaranteed and protected, as are the rights of assembly and peaceful demonstration. North Korea asserted that it “comprehensively provides” for fundamental rights and freedoms, including “the right to elect and to be elected, the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, demonstration and association, the rights to complaints and petitions, work and relaxation, free medical care, education and social security, freedoms to engage in scientific, literary and artistic pursuits, and freedoms of residence and travel.”
These fantastic reports were accepted at face value and acclaim by the majority of member states in the Council.
Don’t expect a similar scene when the U.S. record is reviewed, however. First of all, the U.S. will go to great pains to highlight its human rights problems, flaws and concerns. This would have occurred regardless of who was in the White House – the U.S. has a long record of forthrightly admitting its foibles and shortfalls – but is likely to be further emphasized under the current administration. After all, President Obama’s most well-known foreign policy tactic is to apologize reflexively to foreign audiences.
Countries like China and Cuba, deeply resentful of U.S. tendencies to criticize their human rights records, will seize with great glee the opportunity to hoist the U.S. up on its self-confessed petard of human rights problems. Human rights NGOs will eagerly join them to make sure that their complaints and concerns, submitted during the consultative process organized by the State Department in drafting its report and during the UPR process in Geneva, are amply highlighted. Don’t expect the U.S. to play the game of stuffing the Council’s queue with allies to lessen the time for critical comments.
The U.S. UPR will inevitably be a painful and embarrassing process made more so by an Administration reluctant to robustly defend America’s human rights practices – especially those it strongly criticized during the presidential campaign.
In the end, however, the predictable spectacle will reveal more about the dysfunction of the Human Rights Council than it will about the U.S. record on human rights. Perhaps the experience will lead the Obama Administration to reconsider its embrace of this failed institution.