Press Briefing with Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, U.S. Representative to the Human Rights Council

Ambassador Donahoe at the Human Rights Council, March 26, 2010
Ambassador Donahoe at the Human Rights Council, March 26, 2010

Press Briefing with

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe

U.S. Representative to the Human Rights Council

Friday, March 26, 2010
United Nations Office at Geneva
Geneva, Switzerland

Ambassador Donahoe: Let me start by saying this is my first opportunity to meet most of you. I’ve sat down with a couple of you. And so since it’s my first introduction, I just arrived at the Council, I did sit down and took a few minutes by myself to collect my thoughts and try to convey what I wanted to say to everybody. So I’m going to start with that, and then we’ll try to do a few questions.

First, I want to say it’s such an honor for me to be here as the first United States Ambassador to the Human Rights Council. I was sent by our President to underscore two important things. First is his genuine desire to engage with the rest of the world and especially in multilateral institutions. And second, to underscore his personal commitment, deep commitment, to human rights and how much he does care about these issues.

As I begin my work here I would like to convey to other members of the Council that I am here to listen, I’m here to learn, I’m here to understand different perspectives and concerns. My door is open. The United States is here to be a partner, and we understand that we cannot do this alone.

That said, I want to also emphasize that the United States is here to get results. And we’re especially here to accomplish something very real for victims of human rights abuses around the world, and to make a difference on the ground and show solidarity with human rights defenders around the globe.

So if I strike anyone as a little too direct or impatient, I mean it with the greatest respect for everyone as a way to show that I take everyone’s time seriously and that I can trust that I can tell you the truth and that I’m really trying to accomplish something here.

I’m motivated also by the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. that our President often quotes, which is about the fierce urgency of now. I want to convey that spirit.

Many of these human rights conversations have been going on for decades and I would like to think that my presence here will help bring a new spirit of urgency to what we are doing, and to make the best use of all of our time. The United States will work in cooperation with others, but really does want to make a difference. I want to really underscore that.

So I want to share a couple of my goals going forward. The overarching goal which is sort of obvious, is to enhance the credibility of this body and help the Council live up to its potential to be the lead entity in the UN system for human rights.

How do we accomplish that goal?

First and foremost, I think we have to place the most severe human rights abuses at the top of the agenda at all times. I want to help have the Council figure out how to use the tools at its disposal to address crisis situations in a timely manner when it really can make a difference. And also turn the Council’s attention to the most chronic human rights abusers and deal with those situations. So our priorities are most severe atrocities, crisis situations, and chronic human rights situations.

We would say that the scorecard for all of us here should be whether we make a difference on the ground to the victims.

What have we accomplished in this session?

I think we’ve made some important strides in expanding the range of tools to address country specific situations. Specifically we’ve gotten important renewals of the mandates on the DPRK and Burma. We’ve strengthened the mandate for the Democratic Republic of the Congo with benchmarks, support and oversight on the ground to protect human rights. And very important to me personally is we got a significant victory related to Guinea in a consensus text with the establishment of transitional support for the government of Guinea as it seeks to return to democratic government and support for human rights going forward.

We are also very proud of the far-reaching and innovative resolution on the protection of human rights defenders who we view as the real heroes in this realm. And they’re the ones out there doing the dangerous work on the ground. We hope that human rights defenders around the world take this as a show of our support, that they know we admire them greatly for their courage, and we are really pleased to have this resolution passed.

Finally, in terms of what we have accomplished, I would say something fairly subtle but we think very significant with respect to the topic of how we discuss race, race discrimination, religious intolerance, and freedom of expression. We all know that the interplay of those issues has been really vexing for everyone, and difficult. We believe there have been important shifts in the dynamic here on how we address those topics, and we take this movement as an important sign that there is an opening going forward to really have a constructive change in the whole community in terms of how we address these issues. So that to us, we worked really hard on it and we take that as a real accomplishment.

Let me close by doing a couple of things. First I want to thank our outstanding team who have given their all to this work and made a huge difference to me personally. I really can’t thank you all enough, and I am so honored to be on your team.

I also want to convey great appreciation to all the other members of the Council, the countries, partners with whom we’ve worked, to say we appreciate the dialogue, we appreciate your willingness to work with us, and we hope to continue in a very constructive vein going forward.

Finally, I would like to send a message back home to those in the United States who are actually paying attention to what we do here, which is I’ve come in my short time here, just the last two weeks, to better appreciate the very great opportunity the United States has at the Human Rights Council to make a difference with respect to our most cherished values and core principles which are protecting freedom of expression, protecting human rights defenders, and protecting victims of human rights atrocities. Please know that our engagement here at the Council is very valuable and please be assured that our presence and leadership here will make a difference.

That’s all. Thank you.

Question: You talked about the urgency, so I’d like to ask you about the fact that a special, a joint report on secret prisons was delayed until the next session with the possibility of further delay or total cancellation. What do you think of that?

And related to that, the issue of —

Voice: Why don’t we try to keep it to one, because there are a number of people and we’re short on time.

Question: — special investigators being under pressure, is that an issue for you?

Ambassador Donahoe: to your first question. As you probably know, the United States was not in favor of pushing off that report and we had hoped that it would go forward in this session. So we have been cooperative, open, and take that report very seriously. We were disappointed that it got pushed off.

OF course the United States values the independence of special rapporteurs, that’s an essential characteristic. If independence is taken away, the credibility of their work is undermined. And so of course we will at every opportunity do what we can to ensure that the rapporteurs keep their independence, and we are working on that topic as well as with respect to the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Question: You said that there were some important shifts on this discussion regarding race, religion and freedom of expression. Can you elaborate on that? Was there a way in which it’s been defined differently?

Ambassador Donahoe: I think that for those paying close attention you might notice the trend in the voting as an important signal. And as you probably know, the United States has been vociferous in its articulation of our view that the defamation of religion concept is not a way to prevent intolerance vis-à-vis religion. It’s not going to accomplish that. If anything, it will be detrimental to other core human rights values, especially free speech. The United States is never going to compromise on the principle of freedom of expression. That is something we will always protect.

At the same time, we recognize and we are concerned about, as are others, real issues with respect to race discrimination, religious intolerance, and we want to try to make a difference with respect to those problems but not by compromising freedom of expression.

When we look at the votes that have taken place in this session compared to votes in past sessions we see a nice movement in the right direction. There has been weakening support for the defamation of religion concept, and we believe that’s because of the hard work that’s been done by our team and many others to find other vehicles for addressing religious intolerance and race discrimination. We feel like we’ve found some partners here to do work even outside the session to move that conversation forward.

Question: It’s again on freedom of expression, not so much on what happened here but on the fact that our region still votes in favor, except, well Brazil abstention, Argentina and Uruguay passed to the no, but there are still quite a number of countries still voting yes for that. And by chance, we saw yesterday in Venezuela the President of a TV company being arrested. So the issue of freedom of expression doesn’t seem very clear yet in the region.

Ambassador Donahoe: In your region?

Question: The Western Hemisphere. Except the U.S. and Canada, let’s say. Latin America.

So how do you see the issue of freedom of expression still having, creating still doubts in countries in Latin America in the sense that they still, for example, in Bolivia and Nicaragua, are still voting for the yes here.

Ambassador Donahoe: You say creating doubts. I think what you mean is why are they not yet supporting it?

Question: Yes.

Ambassador Donahoe: Why have they not —

Question: They are supposedly democratic countries and —

Ambassador Donahoe: Yes. And as we say in the United States, we believe that the best way to support speech is more speech. We believe that by continuing this conversation we will be able to convince them. And we’ve seen a lot of other countries move, countries that you might not have expected to be with us. So we have confidence that as this conversation continues that we will make in-roads. But again, the way we do that is by recognizing the real concerns on the other side of the debate. It’s not by saying all we care about is free speech and we don’t care about what happens in terms of intolerance or discrimination. We care deeply. We want to make sure we protect both of those values and we believe through more engagement, countries all over the world will move in that direction.

Question: I will ask in English because I suppose you don’t speak French?

Ambassador Donahoe: Un peu. [Laughter].

Voice: In English, please. [Laughter]. It’s my French that’s weak.

Question: Can you explain why the United States was a unique country to vote against [inaudible] when in Washington they were very concerned about [inaudible].

Ambassador Donahoe: Settlements? yeah.

We are concerned, of course, about the human rights of the Palestinian people as well as the Israelis. We will always stand up to say that’s what we care about.

Our perspective is that the way the issues and the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been addressed in the Council has not been constructive because it has not been balanced. We have emphasized, as did many other members I heard in the Council — over and over I heard countries from all over the world say, the real way to address these problems is to get a comprehensive peace settlement. Everyone knows that. And everyone knows that the United States is out there working to support a two-state solution, a Palestinian state, an Israeli state, living in peace. That is the solution, that’s our approach. And we hope that somewhere in the near term, in this President’s administration, we can make really constructive headway in helping them achieve that peace.

Question: That wasn’t really an answer.

Ambassador Donahoe: Well the answer is we don’t think the Human Rights Council has approached this conflict constructively. So we simply, we want to go back to the overarching solution, the peace process. And we’re not sure that anything we could have done here would have really aided on that topic.

Question: But you refuse to condemn the settlements.

Ambassador Donahoe: I’m not going to comment on what we refused to do or not do. What we support is the two-state solution and the peace process.

Question: Just following up on that, really, in a sense you’re saying a resolution in the Council, given the Council’s track record, might be inimical, bad news for the two-state solution. Shouldn’t the U.S. in the Council be taking the issue on its merits?

Ambassador Donahoe: As you know, I’m new here, but the one thing I’ve picked up is that the history inside the Council, the way these issues have been addressed, have not been constructive. That much I have learned. And everyone agrees the best approach is the overarching approach supporting the peace process. It is not clear to us that any incremental statement anyone makes in this body will actually support the peace process or aid the Palestinians in their desire for human rights. So our focus is on that larger goal.

Question: Today Mexico has a resolution about anti-terrorism and it [has been] made?

Ambassador Donahoe: Yes.

Question: I heard from some diplomats that Pakistanis put in some, it’s like a revenge because Mexico and Uruguay yesterday voted against [inaudible]. What do you think about this?

Ambassador Donahoe: I think that it would be fruitless for me to speculate about the motivations of the Pakistanis. Actually, you could all speculate, just as I could. But it remains to be seen how it’s resolved today.

Voice: Madame Ambassador, I’m afraid that you’ve got to go vote. I want to thank everyone.

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