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UN Human Rights Council Responds to the Arab Awakening
November 10, 2011

Ambassador Donahoe at the Brookings Institute

The Following Article was published
November 9, 2011
on DipNote: the State Department’s Official Blog

I was delighted to be invited to speak at a Brookings Institute event last Friday, November 4, 2011, along with UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang. I owe a great deal of thanks to Ted Piccone and Brookings for their insightful and intelligent reports, which we use often at the Human Rights Council. And it was a pleasure to share the stage with Deputy Kang, whom I consider a colleague, a partner, and friend.

The United States just completed the first two years as a member of the Human Rights Council (HRC). When I first started this job, we were all hopeful that U.S. engagement would make a constructive difference. But even the most optimistic among us could never have dreamed that the HRC would live up to its potential to the extent it has in the past two years, and the Arab Awakening was big part of that. I was asked to speak on what the HRC has done during the Arab Awakening, but it’s also interesting to note what the Arab Awakening brought to the HRC. People say that every crisis brings opportunity, and the Arab Awakening was a true testing ground to see if the HRC would step up to the plate.

When I first arrived in Geneva, I wanted to change the agenda of the Council. What has been interesting is that Council has also served as a vehicle for many countries to show new leadership. For most of its short history, the HRC had been dominated by countries working from a block or ideological mentality — North vs. South, developed vs. developing. These countries were set in their comfortable block positions, but the events of Arab Awakening made people think about which side of history they wanted to be on and consider breaking out of their ideological position.

President Obama said earlier this year in May that “The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sana’a or Tehran.”

I feel that the Arab Awakening legitimized desires for these rights. Those rights facilitate all human rights. It’s not about West vs. non-West. There were activists and regular people saying “no” to the establishment; they were saying these are our rights. This was positive for the HRC, and it definitely shifted the dynamics.

Moving now to the specifics of where the HRC has taken concrete actions in response to the tumult of the Arab Awakening. In Tunisia, there’s a new UN human rights field office working closely with the transitional government. In Yemen, the situation remains fluid but the Council passed resolutions in June and September that will keep a human rights focus on the ongoing change there. We need to keep the dialogue open and encourage a smooth transition.

But the first real test case of the HRC’s reaction to the Arab Awakening was in Libya.

On Friday, February 25, 2011, within days of Qadhafi’s appalling declaration that he would hunt down opposition fighters “like rats,” the Human Rights Council met for an emergency session in Geneva. It was a remarkable day. A sense of purpose, energy, and resolve was palpable as delegates worked with one another and with their respective capitals to respond to the crisis. In an emotional moment, we listened as the Libyan envoy stated publicly that he no longer represented the Qadhafi regime, but instead spoke for the people of Libya. It was clear we had entered a moment of profound historic change, and that as diplomats, delegates and governments we needed to summon the best within ourselves to rise to this challenge.

Confronted with the gross and systematic human rights violations of the Qadhafi regime, Council members turned to the strongest options available to them. The Council ordered the dispatch of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the situation on the ground, recommended the UN General Assembly suspend Libyan membership in the HRC, and demanded an end to attacks against civilians and the arbitrary arrest and torture of peaceful demonstrators.

The Council’s action that Friday sent a powerful signal of the international community’s unity and was instrumental in forging the resolve demonstrated in the days to come. The following day, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing an arms embargo on Libya, freezing the assets of key human rights violators and members of the Qadhafi family, and referring the Libyan case to the International Criminal Court. That Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined foreign ministers from around the world at the Human Rights Council to urge Qadhafi to step down and end the bloodshed. On Tuesday, the General Assembly stripped Libya’s membership rights in the Council, the first time this had happened to a sitting member due to gross violations of human rights.

As the Council was responding to the situation in Libya, uprisings across Syria presented a distinct set of challenges in a different geopolitical context. Protests in Damascus, Dara’a and elsewhere were met with a wave of killings, violence, torture and persecution by the Asad regime. In late April, Council members met for a separate special session to condemn the violence there and send to Syria a fact finding mission from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In August, responding to a new spike in government-orchestrated violence against the Syrian people, the Council held a second urgent session to express the international community’s outrage and to establish a new independent commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of violations of international human rights law and establish facts to hold perpetrators accountable, which will report to the HRC later this month and again in March. The Council has not finished its work on Syria.

Despite focused action, Syria’s story remains unfinished. We will continue to pressure the Syrian authorities to stop the brutal repression of its people, and we will continue to shine a sharp spotlight on the Syrian regime’s flagrant human rights violations.

Both the cases of Libya and Syria show the HRC’s new maturity and resolve. It has become an important platform from which the international community directly confronts human rights crises and stands up for the universal human rights of all. The Arab Awakening captured the imagination of people across the world. It also jolted the HRC into action. While the world watched in awe as ordinary people struggled for basic freedom and dignity, the Council responded by gathering essential facts, condemning atrocities, and pressuring the Qadhafi and Asad regimes to halt the violence.

The Human Rights Council is not and will never be a perfect institution, but the Arab Awakening provided it an opportunity to grow and to have a real impact. Going forward, our job is to ensure the Council continues to improve, and to live up to its responsibility to support the aspirations for freedom and dignity of people throughout the world.