November 3, 2010
Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council
U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
Ambassador Donahoe: Thank you everybody for giving me the opportunity to share a few thoughts on the U.S. UPR which is coming up on Friday as you all know well.
I thought what I would do is share a few thoughts on three topics and then you’re welcome to ask questions if you’d like. The things I thought I would mention are first what is the significance of the UPR in the context of the Human Rights Council? The second thing is, what is the meaning of the UPR and the significance of the UPR to the United States? Third, and most importantly to me, is what is the significance of the UPR process to human rights promotion and protection and specifically does it have any real impact for human rights defenders and victims? I consider that the real test at the end of the day.
So on the question of the significance of the UPR in the context of the Human Rights Council, I would say, and I believe most people, almost everyone would agree the UPR is the most significant new tool for the protection and promotion of human rights that was created at the time that the Human Rights Council came into existence in 2006.
Why is it a significant new tool? In a word, because it’s universal. The UPR requires every country in the UN system to undergo a process of self-reflection on its own human rights record every four years. It requires engagement with civil society. It requires, in effect, a peer review because other members in the UN system get to pose questions and participate in the interactive dialogue. And it requires that this process take place in the open. It’s a public international dialogue.
So those features are very significant. And to date, this new tool has garnered 100 percent participation from every country whose name has come up in this process.
This is the first time the international community has had a mechanism in place whereby even the most repressive countries subject themselves to international scrutiny. That is unprecedented. It really is a remarkable tool.
It also means that in the context of the Council we are not only dependent on what the political dynamics at the time will yield for us in terms of which countries undergo scrutiny. This mechanism has made it possible and set in place the possibility and opportunity to have every single country scrutinized. So it’s a big deal.
The second point– What is the significance of the UPR to the United States?
On that I would say first of all, we are proud of our human rights record. We take our human rights values and principles very seriously. And we value the opportunity to engage in self-reflection and importantly to engage deeply and seriously with civil society. We believe it’s an opportunity for us to reinforce the idea that open dialogue is valuable. And we appreciate the opportunity to improve our own human rights record and we want to acknowledge up front that we do not believe that our human rights record is perfect. This is a genuine opportunity for us to engage in self-reflection and improvement with the help of civil society and other countries.
We also believe that it’s an opportunity for us to role model a process through which civil society is deeply respected and viewed as a partner. And we hope that that comes through in the next couple of days.
So let me describe the process a little bit. You probably know that in developing the report that we were required to submit as part of this process in August, the United States engaged in an exhaustive process of proactively seeking input from across the United States. So – many bureaus in our government were engaged in this process at home, many of them will be represented on Friday and you’ll be able to ask them questions about the subjects on which they have expertise. But there were, I believe, ten separate gatherings created for civil society around the country, from New Orleans to Birmingham to Detroit to tribal lands in Arizona, San Francisco, across east to west and in the middle, north and south. I believe over a thousand representatives of civil society participated in these gatherings and on Friday we hope we will have the opportunity to further demonstrate the seriousness and commitment we make to this process because we brought a very high level delegation which will be led by three different assistant secretaries of state. The Assistant Secretary for International Organizations, Esther Brimmer; the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner; and the Legal Adviser for the State Department, Harold Koh.
In addition, there will be representatives from the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, and Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, INS, the Department of Interior, and others. Again, they will all be available and participating in this process on Friday.
Question: Anyone from Homeland Security?
Ambassador Donahoe: Yes, absolutely.
In addition on Friday we want to make it known, if you have not heard about this, we have organized a Townhall Meeting to further demonstrate our desire to engage with civil society to role model that such engagement is a valuable tool. And as far as we know over 70 NGOs will travel to Geneva from the United States to participate. It will be webcast live. We believe it’s a first, and we hope that other delegations choose to replicate this when their turn comes up for the UPR.
I have to say everybody may expect — we will get some interesting questions. We may get some outrageous questions. But the United States is used to public scrutiny. That is what we engage in at home and we expect that it will continue in the process in Geneva.
Third and most importantly, I just wanted to share a few thoughts about whether or not and to what extent the UPR actually makes a difference to the protection and promotion of human rights. As I say, does it matter for human rights defenders, does it matter for victims?
As you all may know, we are still fairly early in the implementation process of UPR. We have not yet as a council completed the first cycle of UPR. So the evidence is still coming in, but this is what I would say about the early evidence.
We have some cases where the UPR has done its job very well, and this is the ideal, where we actually have seen a change of government practice, specifically because of recommendations that the government has gotten from civil society from their own country. We’ve also seen in some cases new collaboration between civil society and the government that didn’t exist before because it just wasn’t understood that that should be a natural practice, and this has been encouraged through the UPR. So in some cases there is actually new engagement, a new opening of space for government/civil society cooperation and collaboration. I’ve heard one example is in the case of Ecuador where, apparently, the government actually has made some changes to the training procedures for police as well as improved some of the conditions in prison situations, directly as a response to recommendations made to them in the UPR process.
There are other cases that are less than ideal that we’ve seen, where we’ve heard from human rights defenders that even though there’s a lot of resistance from their governments to scrutiny, and a lot of resistance to hearing their criticism, that the UPR provided the first and only opportunity for civil society or human rights defenders to critique their government’s practices publicly and with an international audience. And that when they had that opportunity it did in fact provide motivation and pressure on their governments to change practices.
Then third, and this, again, is not the ideal case, but we’ve heard from human rights defenders that at least the UPR process has a benefit for victims and human rights defenders in that states like the United States and others can amplify their voices in this process and further publicize their criticism and the circumstances of the abuse they’re subject to. This may not sound like very much to some of us sitting here in Geneva in this room, but what we have been told, is that in the most repressive societies, the people sitting alone in those jail cells are the ones who say, guess what, this does really matter. Those are the people to whom this process really matters – That they know that the international community is aware and paying attention and at least using the opportunity to publicly criticize their government for those practices, and in some cases they get released. It does over time, even if only on the margin, make a difference in some cases, and that matters to us.
Last, I guess I will say there is some criticism that sometimes the UPR process gets manipulated. And we would say that it’s still better to have governments participate publicly so that when they make claims about their human rights records that are patently false or absurd, such as the case of DPRK claiming that there was no such thing as human rights problems within their borders, the words speak for themselves. We think that in and of itself is valuable.
So we think it’s a very important new tool, it’s not perfect, it hasn’t been perfectly implemented yet. A lot of suggestions have been made in the 2011 review process in which all members are engaged right now. Many, many proposals have been put forward. Some very technical, mechanical, about how to line up for the speakers list, others about the cycle. But the most important ones from our point of view have to do with implementation of recommendations. So from our perspective the second round of the UPR is the one where the rubber hits the road. There will be a basis upon which to evaluate the UPR process itself, and countries’ actual implementation of those recommendations that were made in the first cycle. So that is another very important juncture, round two of the UPR process. So we all have to wait for that.
But the fact that this mechanism exists is very important and valuable, and we see it as a tremendous opportunity for the human rights community.
With that, I guess I will take your questions.
Question: Does the fact that the United States will also be asked questions by adversaries, by people whose human rights record the United States questions very strongly, does that weaken the process? Does that undermine the process?
Ambassador Donahoe: Not at all. In fact I would say it strengthens the process. If we’re not willing to hear criticism of others that we criticize, I don’t consider that very good role modeling. We believe the process has to be open, transparent. We have to be willing to take criticism from all corners. And we’ve got to be able to take all serious allegations seriously. I believe we will. We genuinely believe that it’s through that type of open process that the truth about our human rights record will shine through, number one, and the areas in which we need to improve will benefit from the real and serious input that we get from whomever has to offer that criticism.
Question: What do you think would be the main focus of the criticism of the other countries? In other words, have you prepared yourself for certain weak points in your human rights records, especially like Guantanamo, like the fight against terrorism?
Ambassador Donahoe: If you look at our written document you’d probably be able to tell which are the categories that we believe we must be well prepared to address. And they range across the board from race discrimination, religious intolerance issues, immigration/ migration issues, economic/social/cultural rights issues. As you mentioned, tensions that are created because of the war on terror with respect to detention practices, issues with respect to respecting citizens’ privacy. The full range of possible questions we feel like we must be prepared for and I believe that the delegation will be.
Question: Some people say that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. What is the standard? Because you have many different countries with many different points of view about. For instance, China just came out and attacked the internet based on the fact that it helped people complain in Iran and thus destabilized the Iranian government. So —
Ambassador Donahoe: It helped people to complain?
Question: There was recently an article in a Chinese military journal saying that the internet needed to be controlled because during the Iranian elections the Greens were able to use the internet in order to destabilize the government by having protests.
The point is, each country has a different point of view as to what’s right and what’s wrong and what human rights are. So when you get all of these countries together, how do you decide which standard you’re going to accept?
Ambassador Donahoe: I don’t really accept the premise of your question. I think that the reality is there are some core human rights principles, and that human rights protections are understood to be universal, and that countries may choose to protect their practices by claiming that human rights are in the eye of the beholder and that it used to be framed as oh, this is an imposition of Western values. That argument I believe has been lost. Part of the reason it’s been lost is because human rights defenders and victims from around the globe, whatever their cultures are, embrace human rights principles and use them to defend themselves and to uphold their principles. They claim them as their own. And I believe that that happens in China.
You look at the case of Tiananmen, that whole period, where they were using the Statue of Liberty, they were making it their own, so to speak.
So I don’t buy it. I believe human rights principles are universal. Yes, they must be evaluated in context. We all have different contexts, but we all must uphold the same principles, and I think internet freedom is a good example.
Question: So then if you get to the question of, for instance, political assassination or torture, there are debates about that in the U.S. as to whether enhanced interrogation is an acceptable idea or is it torture? Is waterboarding a torture or not?
When I was [inaudible] I saw a lot of films in which the Gestapo was waterboarding people. Suddenly it became acceptable.
Ambassador Donahoe: That is an area, obviously, that is being debated very publicly right now. The United States stands for the principle that we do not torture people. But I will tell you that the Department of Defense is here to take responsibility for answering all the questions in that category about intentional practices of the U.S. government for which we must be accountable. That will be part of the process on Friday.
Question: I spoke to some NGOs who thought that the report had a lot of fluff in it, that it was short on actual concrete commitments, specifically on things like the social and economic and cultural, also on things like Guantanamo Bay, terror. What is your response to criticism that it’s fluff? A lot of discussion about the history and where these things came from?
Voice:: That’s again, unfortunately, the type of question that we’re going to need to defer for the group who prepared the report.
Question: If I can follow up. Do you think something like that might have something to do with the process? This is the first round, we don’t have recommendations yet? Things that are more concrete, will that be something that comes ahead —
Ambassador Donahoe: Yes.
Question: — and that’s not something that’s to be expected necessarily at this point?
Ambassador Donahoe: Again, yes, that’s correct. The report was prepared by the Department of one of the Assistant Secretary’s who will be leading our delegation. And as with any document, the author gets to choose the tone and the scope, et cetera. Every country will choose to emphasize certain strengths and focus on certain weaknesses. The fact that we didn’t emphasize social/economic rights perhaps you could argue reflects the fact that we put a greater emphasis on civil/political rights. That reflects our values, that’s our choice. I don’t know that that actually went into — I don’t know how many pages were dedicated to one versus the other.
I think every delegation has the opportunity to choose what they put in their report and it will be evaluated on its seriousness. So it’s fair for anybody to critique it if they choose.
More importantly, though, to the second part of your question, the recommendations that others make about your own country’s practices, those recommendations aren’t dependent on what you put in your report. In fact, this is where civil society comes in, and the freedom of civil society to report on what they see regardless of what a country puts into their 20 pages. You’re limited to 20 pages – for the United States to talk about its entire human rights record, I suspect that’s part of why it went to a narrative type form. And the real engagement with our peers and with civil society will happen in the recommendation process, and whether we accept them or not.
Question: Are you concerned that given the composition of the council these days, that there are going to be a lot of very sort of damaging, potentially sort of counterproductive recommendations that find their way into the list?
Ambassador Donahoe: I’m not particularly worried about that. As I said, you can count on the fact that some of our critics within the council will stand up and have questions and I think we all need to judge those recommendations, criticisms on their face. Either they’ll be legitimate, or they won’t. But the fact that they have the opportunity to stand up and criticize us is net/net a good thing.
Question: You talked a lot about the engagement with civil society. There’s been quite strong criticism of the U.S. record through UN mechanisms, specifically with council special rapporteurs on renditions, false appearances. Is this review process also a platform? Are you approaching it as a platform to specifically address those criticisms and to indicate what the U.S. is going to do in response to those criticisms?
Ambassador Donahoe: I think the simple answer is yes. I am not privy to specifically what the delegation will choose to emphasize or not, but I’m also not privy to what other countries and the other participants in this process will choose to make as part of their recommendations. But it certainly is an opportunity for those questions to be raised, and it’s certainly an opportunity to answer those questions.
Question: Would DoD be leading on that?
Ambassador Donahoe: With respect to those topics? Yes.
Question: I was wondering if you could tell us if any members of Congress are coming for the session or staff directors from key members?
Ambassador Donahoe: I don’t know.
Question: — critical of the Human Rights Council. Do you think they might take an interest in showing up?
Ambassador Donahoe: I don’t know the answer. I know there was discussion about potential members of congressional delegations participating, and I don’t know whether they ended up choosing to come or not, but you will certainly be able to find out specifically who’s in the delegation before Friday.
Question: Any staff directors if the members are not coming? What about their staff?
Ambassador Donahoe: Same. I’m fairly confident I would know with certainty if any members were here or coming. That I feel fairly certain is not the case. I only heard conversation of potential staff people.
Question: They haven’t confirmed yet?
Ambassador Donahoe: Not to me.
Question: This would be highly unusual if no one shows up.
Ambassador Donahoe: Would it?
Question: There are many instances to examine human rights record of each country, like the Committees on, I don’t know, Against Torture, Committee Against…–
Ambassador Donahoe: The treaty bodies?
Question: Yes, the treaty bodies. And the people who are specialists. Here at the UPR, governments and NGOs, you have only three hours to talk. What difference, is it better using UPR or? It’s not duplication? —
Ambassador Donahoe: It’s not duplication, first, because not everybody has ratified the treaties that have treaty bodies. So they would not be subject to scrutiny from those treaty bodies. That’s the first thing. And that goes to the point of universality. That’s the added value of this process, that every country must engage.
In addition, we would argue there is an added value to a peer review process and an NGO process as opposed to the experts. It tends to bring a different type of scrutiny, a different level of scrutiny, and a different dynamic because it forces states to defend themselves with other states.
I wouldn’t argue that where the substance overlaps directly with a treaty body that it is necessarily better, but I don’t think it is simply duplicative. I think they serve different purposes.
Question: In terms of treaty bodies, there’s been longstanding criticism of the U.S. for not signing several important treaties including the convention on the rights of the child, the one on women as well. And this process is often meant to get countries on board. Is the U.S. going to be making any announcements on those lines?
Ambassador Donahoe: I can’t answer the question of whether we will be making any announcements, but I can say I am aware that this process has triggered some important conversations about moving our commitments with respect to those treaties forward. That I am certain of.
Question: There is one critical question. In the past the council was often sidetracked by the dispute between Israel and Palestine. Is there any hope of unblocking that or getting it back onto a more general plane?
Ambassador Donahoe: You mean the —
Question: The council seemed to in the past to get roadblocks by the Palestinian/Israeli dispute. I’m wondering how the U.S., I know how the U.S. thinks about it, but is there any chance of getting the council beyond that?
Ambassador Donahoe: Yes. This, to me, has nothing to do with UPR, but obviously a successful peace process is the single change that could get us past the inherent conflict about Item 7 and Israel versus the Palestinians. If we could look forward to having a resolution of the peace process I think it would have a dramatic, positive effect on the dynamics within the council.
Question: In the context of American politics and right now today with the victory of Republicans in the House of Representatives, is there any way that this new direction at some level might interfere with this process which is quite a novelty in the U.S.? And particularly even considering your own assignment as an ambassador?
Ambassador Donahoe: I probably more than anyone else hope not. I feel fairly confident that we are starting to change the understanding at home about the value of the opportunity we have here. I certainly hope that’s the case. Engagement has its benefits. We have shown some concrete results that people at home, even our most vociferous critics would have to acknowledge are accomplishments. But we would add that just by participating in the conversations here, we have changed some of the dynamics and we see a lot of opportunity to continue our work in a way that even our critics would say the United States benefits from those dynamics.
I certainly hope that this election doesn’t have any impact on movement in that direction.
The last thing I will say, just so you all know, I believe you will have the opportunity to be satisfied, to ask questions on the specifics and the United States human rights record in the various categories about which you have interest. As Wendy said, I had literally nothing to do with the preparation of the report, the Q&A prep. My responsibilities are here and specifically in the processes of the council. But that’s why we brought this whole significant, high level, big delegation to answer your questions, and I hope you’re satisfied with what they’re able to say.
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