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Ambassador Donahoe's Remarks at UN Watch Luncheon
October 26, 2010

Remarks by

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe

at a luncheon hosted by UN Watch

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hotel President Wilson

Geneva, Switzerland


I would like to express my appreciation to UN Watch and especially Hillel Neuer for inviting me to speak with you this afternoon. I took up my position as the first U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council just seven months ago, so I see this as a wonderful opportunity to exchange views on our common values and compare notes on how we can work more effectively at the Council, so that those values are better reflected in the output of the Council.

In preparing for today, I went back to the UN Watch mission statement – which obviously reflects the great intellect and deep

commitments of your founder, Morris Abram. It reads as follows:

“UN Watch believes in the United Nations’ mission on behalf of the international community to ’save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and provide for a more just world. We believe that even with its shortcomings, the UN remains an indispensable tool in bringing together diverse nations and cultures. UN Watch is keenly aware that member states often ask the UN to fulfill mandates and tasks that are neither feasible nor within the means provided. While it would be unrealistic to ignore the UN’s weaknesses, we advocate finding ways to build on its strengths and use its limited resources effectively. . . . UN Watch is foremost concerned with the just application of UN Charter principles.”

The UN Watch mission statement aligns very closely with the reasons behind President Obama’s decision to seek membership at the Council. Well aware of the weaknesses of the Council, the United States chose to practice our creed of “principled engagement,” by seeking to improve the work and functioning of the Council from within. When we took our seat at the Council just over one-year ago, our pledge was to exercise U.S. leadership for the purpose of strengthening human rights protections around the globe. My commitment has been to work to strengthen the Council’s ability to address chronic and crisis situations more effectively, and to make a difference on the ground for human rights defenders and victims.

Admittedly, these are ambitious pledges in the context of the current work and functioning of the Human Rights Council. While the U.S. team at the Human Rights Council always tries to bring a dose of pragmatism to our approach at the HRC, we know that if we are to succeed in translating our ideas and values into results at the Council, we must keep our aims high, keep them front and center, and persevere with tenacity. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s and America’s greatest champions of universal human rights, kept herself motivated with the mantra that she must always set her sights on the highest goals, even when those goals seemed almost impossible to accomplish. She liked to say “you must do the thing you think you cannot do,” and by doing so she raised the level of ambition for human rights protection for all. Whenever we hear voices calling for us to give up and go home, or suggesting that it would be a wiser course for the U.S. to shrink away from the larger goals at the Council because they are too difficult, we remind ourselves that those who came before us to establish human rights principles at the UN, kept their aspirations high and their determination fortified, even when the odds were against them. We know we are privileged to have the opportunity to work for the protection and promotion of human rights and we have no intention of squandering the opportunity we have to do this work at the Council.

Notwithstanding some great challenges, my experience representing the United States at the Council over the course of the past seven months has only strengthened my belief that groups of committed states and NGOs, working together, can make a very significant difference in outcomes at the Council; and that the Council can have a positive impact on the promotion and protection of human rights on the ground.

For our conversation today, I thought it would be useful to look at the eight-point action plan outlined by UN Watch earlier this year, in your “Report and Scorecard with Recommendation for U.S. Government Action” at the Human Rights Council. This plan provides excellent benchmarks for where progress is needed. We take your recommendations to the U.S. government on how to refocus the work of the UN Human Rights Council seriously. We agree that the U.S. must assume leadership for changing the dynamics at the Council and we take that responsibility to heart. To that end, let’s consider the UN Watch recommendations to the U.S. as set out in the 8-point action plan.

1) Hold the Worst Violators to Account:

The specific recommendation under this first point of the plan is to introduce country-specific resolutions, and convene special sessions to address urgent situations of gross human rights violations. This is one of our top priorities and probably our most difficult task – because of the political dynamics and working culture of the Council, where any type of country specific initiative can be perceived as an exercise in “naming and shaming” or “North-South” criticism.

So let’s look at the record on this point. In the past year, with active U.S. leadership, the Council has authorized special procedures mandates to closely monitor and address the human rights situations in Burma, North Korea, Cambodia, and Sudan, among others. Yet beyond authorization or reauthorization of these mandates, the real results with respect to accountability in these places are not satisfactory. This is an area where we are in an uphill battle. As you know, in June 2010, we were able to garner support from a substantial group of 55 cross-regional partners to condemn the abominable human rights violations in Iran on the one-year anniversary of the contested election. A number of our partners at the Council, notably Norway, demonstrated inspired leadership to make this happen. This statement sent an important signal to Iranian human rights defenders and victims — that the international community has not forgotten them or the abuses that the Iranian people have suffered at the hands of their own government. But it is very clear that we must do more

In another U.S. initiative from September of this year, we convened an informal interactive dialogue on the issue of mass rapes in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This session included a report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a statement by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (because many children were victims of the mass rapes) as well as a presentation by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict. It did not take place in the formal setting of the Council, but it was a step in the right direction – namely, more Council attention to ongoing human rights situations across the globe — and provides a basis for Council follow-up on that specific situation.

What I can report to you is that as part of the 2011 review exercise in which we are all engrossed, one of our top priorities will be to find a way to develop and reinforce mechanisms to move the Council in the direction of holding human rights violators to account.

2) Vigorously protect freedom of speech:

The specific recommendation under this action item is to oppose efforts to ban speech through the establishment of an international prohibition on the defamation of religion.

Protection of freedom of speech is a core U.S. value, as well as a guiding principle for our engagement at the Human Rights Council. In fact, we view our participation at the Council as a powerful reflection of our own faith in the power of free speech: While the issues of religious and racial intolerance entail difficult and divisive debates at the Council, we have deep confidence that over time, our willingness and ability to stand up and articulate our values will translate into results – because we do believe in the power of speech. We are committed to working with genuine partners on the issues of racial and religious discrimination, including the OIC, but we have made it clear to all parties that we will not, under any circumstances, do so by allowing the advancement of unacceptable limits on the freedom of expression and religion. We will continue to champion protection of these fundamental freedoms throughout our tenure on the Council.

3) End discriminatory and unequal treatment of Israel:

Here the specific recommendation is to combat the Council’s obsessive adoption of one-sided and biased resolutions against one state – Israel, and to seek to remove permanent agenda Item No. 7 that institutionalises such discriminatory treatment.

The United States has vigorously and unequivocally protested the politicized efforts of some Council members to continually target Israel especially while they ignore serious problems in their own countries and around the globe. Since taking up membership, the United States has consistently voted “No” on biased Council action against Israel, and we will continue to vote our conscience on such issues, even when it isolates us in the Council. The United States is also working to normalize the Council’s treatment of Israel through other means, by welcoming Israel into the JUSCANZ informal consultation group of like-minded, democratic countries. And, we have been a leading advocate of removing Item 7 from the agenda during the 2011 review process and remain firmly committed to that goal.

4) Defend the rights of NGOs:

This action point calls for vigorous U.S. defense of human rights NGOs at the Council, to preserve the historic role of NGOs as independent voices that hold governments to account.

Defending the rights of NGOs at the Council is another top priority for the United States. Robust NGO participation is critical to ensuring that the Council hears the truth about human rights abuses as they occur. Human rights defenders and NGOs perform an invaluable service for all of us: They are our “eyes and ears” on the ground. Human rights violations happen to real people in real places, and NGOs and human rights defenders must be able to play the role of keeping the Council connected to the facts as they unfold in human rights situations around the globe. The United States regularly intervenes to defend NGOs’ right to speak on the floor of the Council. Furthermore, we are committed to actively seeking to enlarge the space for NGOs at the Council, through their participation in the Universal Periodic Review, side events, special briefings, and importantly at regular sessions of the Council.

5) Oppose the election of violators to the Council:

The essence of this recommendation is for the United States to encourage countries with the strongest human rights records to stand for election to the Council in their respective regional groups.

The United States understands that the Human Rights Council will only be as good as its members. Our goal is to make sure that the member states elected to the Human Rights Council are governments with exemplary human rights records and sincere commitments to promoting human rights internationally. Members must be prepared to actively and constructively engage in the work of the Human Rights Council. As many of you know, in the spring of 2010, the United States, other UN member states, and a dedicated group of NGOs, mobilized to block Iran’s election to the Human Rights Council, eventually leading to Iran’s withdrawal. We are also working through the 2011 Review process to strengthen the selection process to produce more qualified membership. We recognize that this initiative will generate a great deal of resistance, but we will continue to work collaboratively with NGOs and other states to promote the election of qualified members to the Council.

6) Encourage positive work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

This recommendation focuses on defending the positive and independent work of the High Commissioner against escalating attempts to control her activities and agenda.

We agree wholeheartedly that the independence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is vital to its effectiveness. The High Commissioner must be able to act as a voice for the voiceless, and speak the truth about human rights abuses on the ground, wherever they may occur.

In September, we were faced with a very serious threat to the independence of the High Commissioner via a proposed resolution entitled “Strengthening dialogue, coordination and cooperation between the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,” this resolution would have subjected the OHCHR’s strategic management plan to Council approval. Through the effective work of a group of countries committed to the broad scope of work and independence of the OHCHR, this resolution was withdrawn. It was replaced with a statement, drafted by the High Commissioner, offering to share the Secretary-General’s Proposed Strategic Framework with members of the Council – but without any requirement that the Council approve the plan. In this case, we were successful in averting a potentially significant reduction in the High Commissioner’s ability to function autonomously.

In sum, the United States is well aware of the threat to the High Commissioner’s independence and will continue to oppose attempts to restrain or politicize the work of her office. Furthermore, we are in regular communication with the High Commissioner’s office, encouraging and advocating for even more proactive use of her authority to speak up when serious human rights crisies arise.

7) Defend the HRC’s independent rights monitors (special procedures):

This recommendation focuses on the need to create, strengthen and then defend the Council’s independent rights monitors from increasing efforts to intimidate them or influence their work.

Supporting the work of the Council’s independent mandates is one of the best ways we can ensure that some of the world’s worst human rights abuses are brought to light. In September, the Council created two new mandates – both of which are critical to protecting human rights around the globe. Through a U.S. led initiative, in cooperation with a significant cross-regional group of co-sponsors, we established a Special Rapporteur on the Rights to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. This was a moment of great satisfaction for our team, because we fully appreciate how fundamental the rights to freedom of association and assembly are to human rights defenders. The NGO community is already calling for that new mandate holder to leverage the position to examine the persecution of human rights defenders in Iran, and we hope we can translate the establishment of this mechanism into real results there.

In another moment of genuine accomplishment, under the extraordinary leadership of Colombia and Mexico, the Council unanimously approved the creation of a Working Group on Discrimination Against Women Under the Law and in Practice. The establishment of the Discrimination Against Women mandate, along with the mandate for the Freedoms of Association and Assembly, reflect the real power of committed member states to make a difference in the dynamics at the Council, and to move the Council in the direction of genuine advancement of human rights around the world.

We are also looking at ways to strengthen and defend the work of existing mandate holders in the 2011 Review process.

Strengthen the Universal Period Review

The Universal Periodic Review mechanism, or UPR, is widely viewed as the most significant improvement in the HRC compared with the Commission on Human Rights, specifically because it instituted a universal review of the human rights record of every country in the UN system. UPR requires self-examination and public presentation by each country of its human rights record, and permits the scrutiny of each country’s record by the international community. Through the UPR process, we have stood with our partners to condemn some of the world’s worst human rights violators.

The U.S. UPR will take place on November 5th. We have worked hard over the past year to facilitate what we see as a model of engagement with civil society, for the purpose of strengthening our own human rights practices at home. While we recognize that we are far from perfect in terms of our own human rights record, and we do expect some exuberant and unfounded criticism, we believe that participation in a thorough, open and transparent process is the way to improve our own practices, as well as to help improve the UPR process of others. We are firm in our conviction that the power of the United States to influence the international human rights dialogue is most potent when the U.S. leads by example. We will look for ways to improve the UPR process through the 2011 Review as well.

In closing, we see our work at the the Human Rights Council as a challenging but valuable opportunity to make a difference on human rights. As noted earlier, the Council is engaged in a serious self-reflection exercise via the 2011 Review process with the goal of improving its work and effectiveness. As with all political bodies, the process of finding a way to improve the output of the Council will inevitably be messy. But, if we do not sit at the table with others and do the work necessary to influence the process, our shared values and priorities will not be reflected in the outcome.

The Council has the potential to serve as a critical venue for the promotion, protection, and mainstreaming of human rights. We still have much work to do, but we believe that U.S. participation and leadership are essential to helping move the Council in that direction. For the United States, our job at the Council is to give voice to the voiceless and defend the fundamental freedoms we cherish. I look forward to working with UN Watch and all our committed partners to further those goals.