Press Briefing on Human Rights in the UN System
Press Briefing on Human Rights in the UN System
Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary, International
Palais de Nations
April 25, 2006
U.S. Mission to the UN -- Geneva
Dr. Lagon: Thank you very much for coming and spending some time with me. I'm actually in town for a couple of reasons. One of my hats in the Department of State is working on UN reform generally and we had a meeting of large contributors to the UN that we regularly have on UN management and reform issues. But more specifically I have responsibilities in the area of human rights in the UN system, and I wanted to step back for a moment as we're coming closer to the first election for the Human Rights Council and its early life to cast for you in clarity what the U.S. view is on the Human Rights Council and the role we'd like to play.
The Human Rights Council as a primary body for the UN is a very important pillar in the efforts of Secretary General Annan to look at major reforms in the UN system. It's probably better to think of the efforts of reform as ones of renewal. Reform sounds a little bit like the work of an accountant, about dollars and cents, and really reform in the UN is about better serving the original purposes of the UN, including those fundamental freedoms and human rights that are cited in the charter.
The Secretary General was right to suggest that we needed a body that was more credible than the Commission on Human Rights and one that was not only working on the promulgation of norms, the extension of norms and ideas for new treaties, but actually helping promote the implementation of human rights on the ground to tangibly improve the lives of those who universally aspire for those fundamental freedoms.
The United States, as you know, was disappointed in the results of the negotiation on the Human Rights Council. We were confident there were a number of aspects of the Council that would be better than the Commission on Human Rights: notably meeting multiple times during the year, being more poised to deal with the most urgent and serious human rights situations in the world, and being a little more flexible than possible at a one-time-a-year theatrical six-week session. Those are good things.
But the United States remained constructively skeptical that the Human Rights Council will be definitively better than the Commission on Human Rights, particularly by one of the major tests that the Secretary General himself emphasized. The Secretary General said in his "In Larger Freedom" report, and sitting at last year's session of the Commission on Human Rights, that the credibility of the institution was harmed by those members who only sought to be part of the Council to deflect criticism from themselves and to pursue vendettas against other nations on the Council.
So the United States decided that it would vote "no" on the resolution to create the Human Rights Council in the General Assembly, not because it wanted to resist a multilateral human rights institution, but in fact because it wanted a stronger and more potent and more credible one than the United States was confident was being created in that resolution.
We went through a thought process about whether the United States would run in the first election to the Human Rights Council, and we decided not to. We decided that we wanted to devote ourselves and the political capital that would be involved in getting the United States elected to the Council to a broader effort to encourage countries to vote for other candidates who are genuinely committed to human rights and to resist electing those governments that are systematic abusers of human rights. It's for this reason that at the same time the United States announced it would not be running in the first election to the Human Rights Council on May 9, that the United States made a pledge - as a number of other countries have - a pledge that says the United States will support governments that are genuinely committed to human rights and will actively oppose, actively work to prevent the election of governments that systematically abuse human rights.
The United States will observe the early work of the Council and we hope that our skepticism will be proven wrong. The United States is inclined, if it sees that the Human Rights Council is indeed a step better than the Commission on Human Rights -- if it is more productive, less politicized -- to look favorably upon running in a year. But it's not going to stand on the sidelines. We will work with partners among the Community of Democracies to discuss those steps that will be important in the early life of the Council. The Council will provide for non-member states and NGOs to play a role, and the United States will not stand by with its arms crossed, observing at a distance.
We also are not interested in skepticism becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We do not want to contribute to the delegitimization of the Council. We want it to work. We will do all we can to support its work, short of running in the first election.
But we do hope, more broadly, that there will be mainstreaming of human rights in the UN system, and that as the early work of the Council develops not only will be able to have the Human Rights Council as the principal body on these issues speak truth to power and address those most serious abusers of human rights, but that there will also be all the more effective technical cooperation to lend a helping hand to those governments who wish to improve rule of law. That's why bolstering the resources of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is so important. On that score we should make sure that the emphasis is on the field, where people can be helped on the ground and not only here at the headquarters in Geneva.
With that I'll stop and I welcome your questions, either specifically on the Human Rights Council or on some of the other interesting issues of the day.
Question: Good to see you. It seems a little bit strange that you were so keen to demolish the Commission and then make the new Human Rights Council something that would exist and then you don't run for membership.
My second point is, what would you do if things go wrong? [inaudible..] What will you do?
Dr. Lagon: It's a good question. The United States had wanted the most credible and effective Council we could get. A number of the member states, notably European states and some other Western states such as Canada and New Zealand, felt that it was best to seize the opportunity that existed, to take the text that General Assembly President Jan Eliason had provided as good enough, as the best that could be gotten. It wasn't the United States' view that we should settle for "good enough." We thought there were greater protections for the credibility of the membership and for more effective work that we could get, and that's why we took the position we did. We didn't do it to scuttle the effort, but in fact to just go on record. And the decision not to run in the first election is a position of constructive skepticism.
But then we'll watch. If it does prove to be more effective, more credible, we'll become all the more engaged in it by running. If not, then we'll need to reassess and talk with our Western partners and our fellow democratic partners in all regions of the world about whether all the hope that's been invested in this new body has proven to be for naught.
Question: If I can just widen, my question is a bit broader. UN reform. We just have been listening to Mark Malloch Brown talking about UN reform and what's helping it and what's hindering it, and he said that the conflict in Iraq has deeply divided the membership of the United Nations. This we know. In fact he described it as having turned into a knock-down drag-out bar-room brawl between the United States and the G-77, and that unless some of these political differences were set aside in the name of successful reform there were going to be big problems. So I just wondered if I could have your take on that.
Dr. Lagon: Mark Malloch Brown took part in meetings of the Geneva Group yesterday -fifteen substantial contributors to the UN who confer twice yearly about UN management -- and he delivered a similar message.
I think it's unfair to characterize the poisonous atmosphere as strictly the product of the Iraq war. Yes indeed, it was controversial. But the poisonous atmosphere - and I will not deny that there is a poisonous atmosphere in New York over reform issues - has a larger context. There are fights that remind one of the 1970s in the kind of clashes. The G-77 for instance just this week has been pushing for a resolution in the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly,the committee that deals with budgetary and financial matters, which would more or less delay any serious action on management reform as proposed in the Secretary General's report recently released under the title "Investing in the UN."
There is a willingness to move away from a consensus voting culture to one of a more contentious culture; the United States is not the bull in the china shop that is singularly causing this. There is a clash that has to do with a perception on the part of the G-77 that efforts to give the Secretary General, as the chief administrator of the UN, more flexibility, are somehow a plot to diminish the power of the developing states in the UN.
It makes very good sense to give the Secretary General more tools for better managing the UN, for better doing the job that didn't get done very well in the Oil-for-Food program. To have a little more flexibility for moving jobs from somewhat less important things to somewhat more crucial things. If you wanted to move personnel to help deal with the tsunami, to help deal with the humanitarian disaster in Pakistan after the earthquake, there should not be quite such strict rules saying you have to go to the entire membership of the UN to move around positions.
So there's a perception that these are steps designed to limit the influence of the G-77. We need to step back from that. I'd say that the U.S. position on reform is that we'd like to see, just as on human rights, the vision of the Charter better fulfilled. The United States is not interested in belt tightening for its own sake. It's not interested in a UN that delivers less. It's interested in a UN that delivers better for its members. A UN that delivers better is much more important to the developing countries than to the United States because the UN's work on peace and security, on economic prosperity and development, and on freedom and human rights is disproportionately more important to the developing world. A UN that develops better is something that the developing world has a very strong interest in as stakeholders.
Question: There's something that I don't understand in your position and in your strategy regarding the Council of Human Rights. You are saying you want to observe and at the same time you would very much like this Council to fulfill all the wishes of the states for human rights. So how can you observe and hope for the fulfillment of your wishes in the same time? I don't understand what will be different next year if you want to run for the election next year, what will be different from this year? And at the same time, there are countries which are also running for the elections who already have their own politics and own plans in mind very clearly, which are perfectly different than yours, so you leave them the stage and you leave them the place to fight against your wishes.
Dr. Lagon: It's a very good question. The fact is that the United States is capable of a subtle position that's not black or white, despite the caricature that is sometimes created. It is not a choice between either loving the Human Rights Council and loving the resolution that created it in the General Assembly, or a scorched-earth policy of not supporting it, not running for it, not funding it. The United States has a position in between, because it felt that the resolution creating the Council fell short.
We worry that protections were not created for elections such as a two-thirds majority in the voting structure and the General Assembly as a requirement for candidates winning seats on the Council. Nor is there a provision for a category of states that were considered so beyond the pale in terms of human rights abuse that they should not even be eligible for the election as a symbolic matter. We suggested that whether governments are under Security Council sanctions for human rights reasons should be that test, but we were willing to look at another test.
We felt it fell short, and therefore we didn't vote for it and we don't choose to run. We don't assume that we'd win the election, but we didn't even choose to run in the first year.
We'll see. Maybe the United States -- looking merely at the text of the resolution to create the Council -- is overly skeptical, but we have reason to think we should be skeptical. And there are other leaders along with us who can play the full role as members of the Council. You can be sure the United States is not standing ready to trip up those who would make the Council stronger. We're there to cheer them on and, in fact, to assist them.
Question: What's your assessment concerning the enlargement of the Security Council? Why there is no progress until now? What's your strategy concerning this question, the enlargement.
Dr. Lagon: It's a complicated matter. Last summer as we were leading up to the World Summit, there was a great deal of activity exploring a substantial expansion. You had both the four principal suitors [The G-4: Brazil India, Germany, Japan) for the Council advancing a plan and the Africans pursuing a somewhat different plan for a while.
I think what we need to do is to look at an expansion that observes the idea of qualitative tests for new permanent members of the Council. As we've said frequently and our senior officials including our Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns has said, we need to be sure that new permanent members of the Council are willing to share the burden financially, of troops for peacekeeping and other efforts of the UN to promote security and peace in the world. There has to be a genuine commitment to regional security on the part of these candidates, and they must not only be committed to international law, but, indeed, to the rule of law at home. They need to be definitively consolidated democracies.
We have come to the conclusion that there is one clear candidate that deserves to be included: Japan. We're unabashed and definitive that Japan meets all these tests. There would be potentially other states.
Our own view is that in expanding the Council one needs to take care about its size because it plays an essential role. Its effectiveness will be dependent upon the degree to which it can develop consensus and act. It's the role of the UN General Assembly to be all-inclusive, to have universality. It's the vision of the founders of the UN to vest in the Security Council a special role, including a role for some permanent members who are great powers, to deal with some of the most sensitive questions that relate to the life and death of people in conflicts.
So we think there might be an expansion both of permanent members and of rotating members, though perhaps not of the substantial size proposed by the G-4 and the Africans last year. The Japanese themselves have their own proposal. But what's important is to look at who might join the Council along with Japan, and whether the "reform" of the Security Council will help advance the purposes of the Security Council.
Question: There have been a number of organizations and people who have said that the reason the United States did not run for election for the Council this year was because the ballot is secret and that the United States would lose and the United States then would lose face and be humiliated. Your response on that, please?
Then, by staying out of the Council, especially in this first most significant year, don't you think the United States loses clout and loses the opportunity to shape the direction in which the Council could go?
And then I have a technical question. The Council members are elected every three years, so how can you run next year? Shouldn't the next election be three years from now? Or am I missing something?
Dr. Lagon: Why don't I start with that, the most technical question.
As it will happen, the 47 members will be elected on May 9th, and perhaps some successive days because the provisions for the election may take multiple rounds of the election. There's a ratio for various regional groups giving their number of seats. For instance, in the group that the United States sits in, the Western European and Others Group, there are seven seats. Seven countries will be elected. After they're elected they will draw straws and some of them will be unlucky and they'll learn that they only got on for two years, or one year. Because in this first election we need to fill the Council with its full membership, but then we need to provide for a yearly rotation where roughly one-third of the Council will rotate off each year. So that's how it's going to work.
Question: It's a lottery.
Dr. Lagon: It is a lottery after the election takes place, and it will not be according to who has the most votes that they get on for three years. So there will be a normal election next year, when there will be two or three seats for the Western group open, and that election will be for three years.
Let me answer the question about how the United States would do in the election. There is a poisonous atmosphere in the UN. There are controversial things that the United States has pursued as policies. It's reasonable to ask the question about whether the United States would win. We would have had to work hard for the United States to win, and we would have. We made the calculation that the United States probably would be elected with a good lobbying campaign, though it wasn't certain. But the decision not to run was not based entirely on being certain we were going to lose, and on that being a problem.
The question was if were to engage in a global effort should we also be engaging all that political capital in helping assist the best other candidates being elected or helping work against some of the worst candidates? There are some candidates already announced that we hope would not be elected. Furthermore, there's much international lobbying that the United States will be involved in to promote the more general reform agenda including, importantly, when the $950 million temporary budget authority of the UN and its biannual budget in New York expires in late June. It's a moment in which the membership of the UN will have to see whether sufficient reforms have been accomplished for the extension of the budget authority. And there will be a very active effort to encourage that reform.
So we decided to work on these elements and we'll see how things work in the first year. We are confident that we have strong allies among the community of democratic states who will work on these early procedural matters, who will work on shaping the universal periodic review, who will work to preserve the most important rapporteurs. The United States will support that effort, and it may choose to run subsequently.
Question: I'm sorry, was that your answer to my second question? That is, the loss of clout by not being a member of the Council?
Dr. Lagon: There is a degree to which the United States would have more influence as a member of the Council. However, it would have one vote out of 47, it would be one out of seven WEOG [Western European and Others Group] states because the Council has gone from a 53-member body in the Commission on Human Rights to a 47-member body in the Human Rights Council. The number of Western states has diminished from ten to seven. Being on the Council would be important, but the United States also can be a player, and not just a passive observer, from outside as well.
I won't overstate the role the United States would play. Clearly there are ways that being on the Council would matter, but don't assume the United States is going to pout on the sidelines and not participe.
You asked about the secret ballot. Let me just note that no one knows whether the secret ballot helps or hinders who would vote for you. There You might suspect more people might vote for you under a secret ballot, but there is some reasoning to think that fewer might vote for you under a secret ballot.
It would be nice to see, however, those states that still engage in vote trading to have that vote trading brought out into the open. I must say that we greatly admire the decision of the government of Mexico who is running for the Human Rights Council, who announced on March 15th, [the day] that the Human Rights Council resolution passed in the General Assembly that it would foreswear vote trading on the Human Rights Council. This is a policy the United States has had for some time.
Question: A question. Do you intend, does the United States government intend to publicly express its opinion on the candidates before the election on May 9th?
Dr. Lagon: That's a great question. Our tradition has not been to reveal our votes. We're not going to get into the business of having a discussion with the many good candidates about who will precisely get our vote. One can guess some governments that we will clearly oppose: those governments that are systematic human rights abusers, the kind in which our annual country reports on human rights elaborate at length, human rights abuses are not going to get our votes. But right now I don't think we'll be announcing publicly who we're voting for. It will be a secret ballot and it will remain a secret.
However, I must say, in diplomacy we will be talking to other states about candidacies and urging other governments to follow in the same direction we are. That this is not regular order-of-business in the UN of mutual back-scratching, that I'll vote for you if you vote for me. This Council is supposed to be something different. The values the Council is supposed to advance should be firmly in mind of those nations who go into the election on May 9th.
Question: [In French].
Dr. Lagon: The aspirations of all people in the world to enjoy fundamental freedoms are indeed universal. There is a universality in the UN system, in the General Assembly, in which all constituted states have an equal voice. But with the work of the human rights machinery of the UN, one has to ask whether governments that are not committed to promoting human rights for their own citizens should, in fact, have vested in them a special role to promote human rights internationally.
The United States has expressed skepticism about the Human Rights Council, but it has been very careful not to undercut the Human Rights Council. There are several things the United States could do that could put us at war with the Human Rights Council, but that's not our position. However, perhaps more than some European states, the United States is comfortable taking a position that's based on principle as an exemplar. There's more of a consensus orientation among our European allies that led them to feel that they should settle for "good enough."
So, the United States is not at war with the Human Rights Council. We hope it succeeds, despite the fact that we worry that it will be the Human Rights Commission with different clothes.
Question: I was wondering, earlier Mr. Mallach Brown hoped there would be a selection for the new Secretary General sometime between October and December. Are you confident with the short list of the three candidates, or do you think there's a possibility that a candidate outside of the short list of three might be elected?
Dr. Lagon: I'm not confident that the field has been entirely revealed. If you look at the history of these races, there is always a possibility of another candidate coming out. It's good that there are candidates who are going around and talking to the member states, including to the members of the Security Council, who play the initial nominating role. This means those candidates can be examined, but other candidates may still enter the field later on.
There is no secret U.S. candidate that we are preparing to help spring onto the scene. We haven't made our full assessment and we haven't made our own decision among the existing field of candidates.
We are very interested in seeing that the Secretary General be someone with a history and a commitment to managing institutions. We don't want the next Secretary General to be just the potential nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, but also someone who is committed to renewal of an institution that desperately needs renewal. We've talked about a role that a chief operating officer might play, a Deputy Secretary General. But the job of managing the UN should not be entirely handed off (to a deputy) by the body's chief diplomat. There has to be a personal commitment by this man or woman to managing the institution, as well.
Question: The idea that the geographical rotation will be preserved and that it will be the turn of Asia, are you comfortable with that given that we're hearing reports that an East European candidate might be an option as well?
Dr. Lagon: The United States is not lobbying for the delivery of an Eastern European candidate, despite our friendly relations with some Eastern European countries and admiration for some of their leaders. There is a discussion, a kind of sense that it's the Asian group's turn. But there's no hard and fast rule that indicates there should be a rotation. We think that qualitative standards for the best candidate should be determinative. If that proves not to be an Asian candidate in the end, so be it.
The United States is not in a position to handpick this person. It just has a substantial voice in the Security Council, in which it has a veto.
History bears out that having a veto in the Security Council means that the United States is capable of putting its foot on the brake of the car, but it doesn't necessarily have the ability to put its foot on the accelerator. The United States is not in the position to choose - nor is it going to try to choose - a single candidate. It will be part of a general process. Of course, we do have an ability to make our mind known if we think a candidate isn't a reasonable one.
Question: I have a question regarding assistance to the Palestinians. I understand that the United States suspended assistance to the bilateral support to the Palestinian Authority. What about support through the international agencies? Is the United States pressing the United Nations to stop supporting the Palestinians? And/or is the United States considering pulling out support either by project or organizations to assist the Palestinians? As long as the Hamas government is there?
Dr. Lagon: I have three points to make, to be very clear on this matter.
The United States is not willing to give direct support to the government of the Palestinian Authority if Hamas is in the driver's seat as a result of the elections. We are very eager for humanitarian support for the Palestinian people. We have been long-time supporters, for instance, of the UNRWA program, and we will continue to be. As a third point, the United States continues to think that the three major committees that exist related to Palestinian affairs do not actually advance the welfare of the Palestinian people, and are really more propaganda arms against Israel.
What we need is a future in which there can be two states that live side-by-side with democratic governments and secure peaceful relations. We think that those UN programs that advance the humanitarian welfare of the Palestinian people are reasonable. Those which pretend to serve the Palestinian people, but are really just mouthpieces for propaganda that's one-sided and which don't advance the peace process, aren't reasonable.
Question: [In French].
Dr. Lagon: The point is well taken, that the United States is an advocate of democratic institutions and that democracy is an enabler of economic prosperity and peace in the world. President Bush has made it very clear that this is the centerpiece of his foreign policy.
However, as long as the elected leadership in the Palestinian Authority presents, as Hamas does, a position (that calls for) the end to one state, the destruction of Israel - as we understand remains the thinking of Hamas -- we will not provide financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority. There cannot be a two-state solution in which a substantial player in the Palestinian Authority is devoted to the destruction of one of the states.
That's the U.S. position. If Hamas changes its view and makes it clear that it renounces this position, then the situation might be different.
Question: Two questions. My first one, on this drawing of straws that you rightly exposed maybe some of the silliness of it, but then you said you might want to run in a year, so how would that work? You would penalize maybe one of the countries that drew the short straw by replacing them instead of giving them their chance to serve for a longer period of time. How would that work? Would you go up to Sweden or Netherlands and say, "Look, we're better than you at human rights, it's our turn now?" Or would you just run against them?
The second question is, you said you were going to watch but still participate this year. Will you be asking future members to bring up some of the points that the United States previously brought up in annual commissions, such as criticism of Cuba or China or different places that typically fell to the role of the United States to bring up, whether it was politicized or not?
Dr. Lagon: These are good questions. I wouldn't belittle the drawing of straws. I do feel for the countries that will work for this first election and find out that they're not elected for three years.
We were very committed to the idea that there be no holdovers from the Commission on Human Rights. We needed a fresh start, so it is appropriate that every member of this Council be elected by the procedures set up for this.
It's not the United States who, if it decides to run next year, will suggest that other countries must step aside. There are a number of countries who came to us and said, "You really should run," or, "If you don't run this year we hope you'll run in the future." We're not going to be the big foot insisting that others stand aside. The seats that will open up will be those elected this year for one year; if they choose to run for reelection and we choose to run, we'd be competitors. But it's supposed to be an election, so they know these are the rules. Any time you run for reelection there's a chance you might not get elected.
On those issues that the United States is associated with, yes, we will talk to our partners as we always do about important issues. It's more likely to be the broader issues than some specific target countries that we want action against. We think it's important, for instance, that there be country resolutions on the important situations in the world, and that the Council prove itself capable of dealing with the most urgent situations.
Let's go back to the case two years ago in the spring of 2004, an ignoble chapter in the human rights machinery of the UN. First, a resolution passed with the support of the African group and the European Union on Sudan, in the middle of the atrocities in Darfur, which did not go very far at all in terms of calling it like it is. It didn't create a rapporteur, it didn't present the situation as the government of Sudan sponsoring atrocities. The United States stood aside and did not support that resolution, and it was hailed by human rights NGOs -- which, by the way, doesn't happen all that often these days.
A few weeks later, even days later, there was an election in New York in the Economic and Social Council for the next membership of the Commission on Human Rights. Who was put forward on the African slate? The government of Sudan. And it was elected. And the United States, unable to block that election because of those election rules, on principle walked out of the election.
Let's hope that the most serious human rights problems of today -- when they're urgent and they're ongoing -- can be dealt with, and that the governments perpetrating horrible acts of repression won't be elected to the body that's supposed to deal with these issues.
We will work with our partners and urge them to make the universal periodic review useful and not crowd out other valuable work. We will work with other countries in the review of the rapporteurs to make sure that all the important rapporteurs are preserved. We will work with other countries to make sure we don't have a sub-commission on human rights that has experts who are in fact the tools of dictatorial governments. We will work with other countries to make sure that political and civil liberties are not crowded out by an agenda focusing solely on economic redistribution.
Question: Going back to the question of Hamas, don't you think that the position of the U.S. government withholding funds from Hamas could lead to an escalation of terrorism and counter-attacks in the region?
Dr. Lagon: I don't know that it's demonstrably true that were the United States to permit funding to support Hamas, that it would diminish the chance of terrorist acts. I think the best thing to do when you see a party that is committed to civilians being killed in acts of violence, is not to underwrite that. So I don't think the United States should somehow be cowed by the possibility that there might be acts of terrorism that result from this cutoff. Our position is appropriate.
Democracy involves a number of things. It involves elections. It also involves the development of civil society. And it involves the commitment to a culture of consensus and living with others of different groups, ethnicities, religion, and not treating others and minorities as if they are less than human.
I'll take one more.
Question: I don't know whether the agenda for the first Council meeting has been set or not, but I do wonder in two weeks what actually will be dealt with. You spoke about the importance of country resolutions. Will those be on this first meeting's agenda?
Dr. Lagon: I'll give you my guess, and take this as an example of how we wish to be involved. We're paying attention. We were involved in a dialogue hosted by High Commissioner (for Human Rights Louise) Arbour late last week. It's in question whether the first two-week session will deal only with procedural matters, or have a high-level segment where delegations from foreign ministries come and make statements on the historic occasion of the start of the Council. It's not clear whether there will be country resolutions or substantive work. But it is important that fairly soon, in the first couple of sessions, serious substantive work be addressed. It would be important to look at the most serious problems in the world and take substantive steps.
But there is a lot that the General Assembly has left for the Council to organize for itself. I would say there's plenty for it to do in this first two-week session, and I don't know that we'd be disappointed if there's no country resolution passed in the first two weeks. We would be very disappointed if there weren't substantive work to address the most serious human rights problems in the world in calendar year 2006. I'm afraid I better stop. Thank you for coming.
Released on April 25, 2006