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Advancing Promotion & Protection of Human Rights

Advancing the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights at the United Nations

Mark P. Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organization
Remarks at B'nai B'rith
Washington, DC
October 29, 2005


The United States has been a leader in efforts to reform the United Nations to ensure that it addresses effectively the threats and challenges of the 21st century. Our efforts to reform the UN range from finding ways to improve operations and make better use of resources to more serious concerns with bodies like the Commission on Human Rights, which often adopts resolutions that have little or no impact on the problems at hand. Reforming such bodies is more difficult, requiring Member States to address questions that range from membership to scope of work.

This past September, world leaders gathered in New York to come to agreement on an outline for how to reform the UN. It is critical that we maintain the momentum of that World Summit and begin taking tangible steps to realize the Summit's goals if we are to reform the United Nations into a more transparent, efficient institution accountable to Member States.

As Secretary Rice said in her address to the UN General Assembly in September, "leaders must become architects of a better world." That sentiment rings especially true in the context of reforming the human rights machinery of the United Nations. Political realities outside the UN, narrow parochial interests, and preferences for the status quo too often prevail over upholding the values and principles -- such as peace, security, human rights, and freedom -- upon which the UN was founded. Today I would like to share with you the United States Government's thoughts on how we can improve how the United Nations addresses human rights.

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The UN's Human Rights Mechanisms Are Broken

The UN's human rights mechanisms are broken and must be fixed. There is no better example of this than the abysmal record of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The U.S. believes that the CHR should be eliminated entirely and replaced by something better.

Currently, some of the world's most egregious violators of human rights work though their regional blocs to gain nomination and election to the CHR in order to protect themselves from criticism. At the same time, there has been a disturbing trend for developing countries to turn away from country-specific resolutions that single out and scrutinize those countries with the worst human rights records. Non-democratic states like Cuba and China have led a vocal campaign to steer the UN away from passing resolutions that condemn serious human rights violations. It is no coincidence that both China and Cuba have confronted the possibility, and sometimes the reality, of having resolutions passed against them. As a result, these countries, often joined by like-minded nations with similar records of human rights abuse such as Syria, Zimbabwe, and Sudan, have criticized country-specific resolutions as "selective" and "politicized."

Developing democracies have internalized this message that criticizing a country for its poor human rights practices is somehow equated with selling-out to the United States. Even more pernicious, some countries have argued for the elimination of all country-specific resolutions, except those targeted at Israel, the only agenda item devoted exclusively to one country. Use of the no-action motion -- which takes a resolution off the table -- has proliferated.

Sudan is one example of the failings of the Commission on Human Rights. In the spring of 2004, the CHR passed a very weak resolution Sudan. The U.S. had sought to revise and replace the text, and ultimately we opposed the resolution. It simply was not strong enough with regard to the atrocities taking place in Darfur. A few days later, Sudan was reelected to the Commission on Human Rights. When Sudan was reelected, the U.S. delegation reproached the body by walking out of the meeting and issuing a public, very critical, statement.

Since then, of course, the United States has continued to bring human rights violations in Sudan to international attention. Former Secretary Powell determined that the government of Sudan had committed genocide. The United States has led the Security Council to take action. Indeed, at the recent UN Summit we were successful in making certain that the Outcome Document guaranteed a central role for the Security Council on the need for the international community to deal with cases where states are engaging in genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, and shirk their responsibility to protect their own citizens. In fact, we underscored the readiness of the Council to act in the face of such atrocities, and rejected categorically the argument that any principle of non-intervention precludes the Council from taking such action.

Another example of how the Commission on Human Rights fails to meaningfully address human rights abuses is its treatment of Israel. At the same time that some countries press to do away with country-specific resolutions entirely, they contradictorily support those targeted at Israel under Item 8. In general, these resolutions are repetitive and unbalanced, placing demands on one side in the Middle East conflict while failing to acknowledge that genuine progress towards realizing the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security, requires that both sides take steps toward that goal. The United States strongly believes that one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions undermine the credibility of the United Nations and of the CHR particular.

These dynamics -- the trend against meaningful resolutions, regional bloc voting, and a de-linking of the UN human rights machinery from the protection of essential political and civil rights -- have rendered the Commission on Human Rights -- the UN's premiere human rights body -- beyond repair.

Starting to Fix the Problem: The Human Rights Council

At the UN Summit in September, President Bush said, "When this great institution's Member States choose notorious abusers of human rights to sit on the UN Human Rights Commission, they discredit a noble effort, and undermine the credibility of the whole organization. If member countries want the United Nations to be respected -- respected and effective -- they should begin by making sure it is worthy of respect."

The Secretary-General proposed a new UN body to address human rights: the Human Rights Council. We support this proposal, and believe that the Council should replace the Commission on Human Rights entirely. The new Human Rights Council should have fewer diversions, more credibility, and preferably fewer members.

We are pleased that Member States agreed to language in the Summit's Outcome Document on the need to establish the Human Rights Council with a mandate making it poised year-round to focus on grave situations in specific countries. Some of the thorniest details, though, have not been clarified. We should bear in mind that some delegations, including a group comprising some of the world's most notorious human rights abusers, fought against this proposal. An immediate priority for the United States is passing a detailed resolution formally establishing the new Council.

We are seeking a Council that can more effectively reach out to countries to assist them in meeting their human rights obligations. When states abuse freedom acutely, the UN's chief human rights organ should be able to speak out plainly. We seek a body that can better offer immediate attention to human rights by quickly addressing urgent or continuing human rights violations, and can also offer technical assistance and capacity-building resources for countries seeking to strengthen their domestic human rights protections. The activities should be the main focus of the Council and the essential component of its mandate.

The membership of the Human Rights Council will be key to its effectiveness. At a minimum, governments subject to human rights-related Security Council sanctions or commissions of inquiry should be ineligible for membership. As a colleague of mine said at the onset of this year's session of the Commission on Human Rights, the membership must be the firefighters of the world, not the arsonists.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also plays a valuable role in protecting human rights around the world. Fortunately, this Office does not face the dire problems of the Commission on Human Rights. Indeed, in recent years the role of the Office has expanded, and it is now engaged in conflict prevention, crisis response, and wide-ranging technical assistance, in addition to its longstanding advocacy work. Yet the office receives a scant two% of the UN's regular budget, and must rely on voluntary contributions. The United States supports doubling the budget of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

One important area in which the High Commissioner could use additional resources is in the area of training, standardization, and professionalization of the so-called "special rapporteurs" -- the private experts asked to research or monitor a situation and report back to the Commission or Commissioner. These measures would permit more effective and professional support for the special rapporteurs and provide more consistency and objectivity in their reports. It might help with those who twist their mandates to attack Israel, like the rapporteur on food, Jean Ziegler.

But even more than work at the hub in Geneva, expanded resources of the Office should largely be devoted to field offices -- to offer technical assistance to nations seeking help building human rights protection and rule of law. The potential role of the Office of the High Commissioner in monitoring and preventing human rights abuses on the ground -- and in carrying out proper early warning -- is no less important than technical assistance.

The Democracy Caucus and the UN Democracy Fund

In another UN institution devoted to furthering liberties, the United States has been successful in creating a new UN Democracy Fund, which was envisioned by President Bush at last year's General Assembly. The purpose of the Democracy Fund is to provide grants to civil society, governments, and international organizations in order to carry our programs that strengthen democracy. While there are other UN agencies involved in good governance programs and related work, this would be the first UN fund whose sole purpose is to support democracy-strengthening programs.

As President Bush said in September, "The work of democracy is larger than holding a fair election; it requires building the institutions that sustain freedom." Since the UN has an electoral assistance unit and rule of law programs of the UN Development Programme, we see the Fund adding value by giving grants to NGOs to build civil society, as is so important in transitional states consolidating democracy. President Bush, Indian Prime Minister Singh, and Secretary-General Annan co-hosted a meeting of potential donors and recipients of the newly-launched fund on the first day of the UN World Summit. So far, 15 countries have voluntarily pledged $43 million to the Democracy Fund.

A discussion of problems at the United Nations involved in protecting human rights is not complete without a discussion of democracy, and a lack of democracy, at the UN. By democracy I do not mean a system that some people associate with having one nation and one vote in the General Assembly. I am talking about the importance of democracy as a policy at the UN. In too many cases, the governments voting at the UN have not been democratically elected.

While countries have formed coalitions from traditional regional blocs to the Non-Aligned Movement to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the democracies of the UN have not been effective at coming together as a bloc. The United States has worked to bring democracies together into a Democracy Caucus to overcome the influence of non-democratic governments. Democratic nations share a common commitment to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. And such a bloc can help reform the UN. Mali is showing encouraging leadership this fall at the Democracy Caucus. It may well help achieve the Human Rights Council, and back the Democracy Fund.

The democracies have a responsibility to work together to help the UN achieve its original vision and potential, especially in advancing human dignity. I hope we can continue to work together to ensure new democracies have our support in tangible ways. I am happy to take your questions.

Released on October 31, 2005


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