My work takes me often to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. When I was last at the Human Rights Council in March, there was one moment when I was especially proud to be American. I was proud to be American when the U.S. took the floor to speak up on behalf of freedom of expression and association in Cambodia, where the government is cracking down on political opposition in advance of July elections.
Just last week, we participated in a Department of State briefing on the U.S. priorities for the July Council session. The U.S. was planning to speak out strongly on civil & political rights again. Protection of women’s rights is also a focus of this session, something the U.S. has taken a lead role on in recent years. The U.S. was planning to make specific resolutions again on countries that the Council discusses regularly, including Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and Belarus. We were working closely with several European countries on thematic priorities such as civil society space and business and human rights.
Only 47 Member States, elected by the General Assembly, can vote BUT every Member State has a voice at the Human Rights Council. It is a diplomatic and democratic institution, albeit on a global scale – and with only diplomatic (soft) power. Although better than its predecessor (where I also worked), there is no question that the Human Rights Council has flaws. But, to quote Winston Churchill, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise”.
The Human Rights Council was created to be the main international political forum to discuss and make recommendations related to human rights situations. Before the Council came into being in 2006, civil society groups and some governments lobbied hard to restrict membership on the Council to States with strong human rights records. Those efforts failed so currently the Human Rights Council membership criteria is minimal. The 47 Members States are elected directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority of the members of the General Assembly. The membership is based on equitable geographical distribution, and seats distributed as follows among regional groups: Group of African States (13); Group of Asia-Pacific States (13); Group of Eastern European States (6); Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (8); and Group of Western European and other States (7). Short of changing the criteria (which could be done democratically if there was enough political will), there is room for diplomatic pressure at both the regional and international levels to ensure that the States with better human rights records are put forward for election in their regional groups.
The real value of the Human Rights Council is engagement. Every country’s human rights record is reviewed by their peers during their regular Universal Periodic Review. Every country receives both criticism and commendation. In my time at the Council, I have honestly been surprised by how often this public, international peer pressure is effective in getting countries to take action to improve human rights conditions.