An official website of the United States government

Ambassador Donahoe Outlines U.S. Priorities at 19th Session of Human Rights Council
Press Briefing at the Palais des Nations
February 22, 2012

Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council
February 22, 2012

A woman speaking at a microphone
Ambassador Donahoe speaking to the media

Ambassador Donahoe:  Thank you all for coming.  We really greatly appreciate the interest in the Human Rights Council’s work.

What’s obvious is that as we meet today the international community is struggling to deal with the crisis in Syria, and that will be a big focus in this session.  But what I’d like to do is make a couple of general comments on our overarching priorities and also a few comments on general trends we see at the Council in terms of its evolution and maturation process.

The first comment: keeping in mind a year ago this Friday was an important moment at the Human Rights Council –which was the special session on Libya, which was one of the first times we were really able to grapple with a crisis in real time. As you may recall, Secretary Clinton and many world leaders came to the Council, called on Qadaffi to step down, end the violence.  What we have now, just one year later, is a very changed landscape both in the world, in the Middle East and North Africa and not coincidentally at the Human Rights Council.  Mubarak is gone, Qadaffi is gone, Ben Ali is gone, and there are transitions underway in those countries.

We are actually working collaboratively today, and you will see this at this upcoming session, with the authorities in Tunisia and Libya, to help them protect human rights, work on democracy promotion and the rule of law.  And we consider that transformation of the work in the Council to be very significant.

We have to say we are aware that many of these democratic transitions that we see are fragile, we’re worried about them, and we know that the outcome sin several of these situations are not clear, but we want our message to be very clear, which is at the Human Rights Council the membership will work to support all efforts to work to build democratic, free, fair societies, and that the international community will have this as a vehicle to support democratic efforts around the world.

I want to just move really quickly to a couple of different priorities.  As I said, obviously Syria will be top of the agenda at the Human Rights Council in this session, so we begin on Monday with the High Level Segment and I believe there’s something like 80 Ministers from around the world coming to Geneva for this session.  I think it’s fair to assume that the vast majority, if not all of them, will give their commentary on the crisis in Syria.

In addition, we expect that on the 12th we have a scheduled interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry that was established through this Council last summer, and at the end of the session you can expect another resolution on the crisis in Syria where our expectation is that the Commission of Inquiry will be extended and presumably there will be further condemnation and hopefully some other tools we can come up with to help with the humanitarian situation.

I want to comment, we all know that the circumstances in Homs and elsewhere, Hama, the violence is just growing by the day.  I have just learned from a couple of your colleagues in this room that there is a report at least of another death of a journalist in the last day or so.  We are horrified to learn about that, and we want to underscore the value we place on a free media.  We understand that without a free media human rights defenders and activists cannot get their messages out.  The international community is not able to support the work or convey support for anyone in a closed society if we don’t get their messages.

So the importance of the media could not be overstated when it comes to human rights work.

Here we really would like to also pay tribute to Anthony Shadid who we all know was very brave and courageous and important in getting so many stories to us.  He had an extraordinary impact on how these transformations were understood by the rest of the world, and we just want to say we will honor his memory.

Last, on Syria.  I think there’s an overwhelming consensus that the Assad regime must go; the violence has to stop.  Assad is being more and more isolated.  Unfortunately, it’s not yet universal.  The condemnation isn’t quite to that point yet but it’s moving in that direction.  I think you all know there’s a very important meeting on Friday in Tunis with the Friends of Syria.  Secretary Clinton will be there as will many other leaders, and I’m confident they’re going to be looking for  avenues to ensure that humanitarian relief can move into the most threatened areas and look for other ways to pressure Assad to leave and end the violence.

Following that Tunis meeting, in Geneva we will work very hard to amplify the pressure on Assad and demand an end to the violence.  As I said, we will have multiple opportunities to do that during the High Level Segment, during the interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry, and with our resolution on the final days of the Council.

I’m going to move to another top priority for the United States which is a difficult and much more nuanced initiative so I’m going to take a little bit of time to explain it.  It’s on Sri Lanka.

As I said, a year ago we were struggling to get the Council machinery to deal with crisis situations, and this past year we have a lot of evidence that the Council is now able to deal with crisis situations. We’ve had multiple special sessions on Syria, we had the special session on Libya, and we’re doing a relatively good job of confronting things as they occur and capture the world’s attention.

The case of Sri Lanka is different and difficult.  It is essentially dealing with large-scale civilian casualties, allegations of government involvement in large-scale civilian casualties during a civil war that took place over many years, but ended in 2009.  It’s not an ongoing crisis.  And for that reason, it’s slightly more challenging.  In the circumstances of the world today the fact that it’s not a crisis makes it slightly more difficult.  However, we firmly believe that doing a Human Rights Council Resolution on this subject is warranted and important because we believe there cannot be impunity for large-scale civilian casualties, and that if there is to be real reconciliation it must be based on an accounting of the truth and serious implementation of changes.

So we are working to convince the Sri Lankan government that there has to be greater evidence of serious implementation of the recommendations in their own domestic report and greater accountability in order to satisfy the victims and the various communities that feel like they have not yet been heard.

Maybe I’ll take a minute here and outline even more specifically for you how we will proceed with this resolution.  It will essentially have three elements.

The first will be, we’ll acknowledge that the Sri Lankan government undertook a domestic investigation, the LLRC — Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission.  It was very good in a number of regards and we will acknowledge that.

Second, it will say, unfortunately the report was inadequate with respect to accountability and we do not believe reconciliation is possible, that real reconciliation is not possible without greater focus on accountability, credible accountability efforts.

Third, that the LLRC is not adequate with respect to a credible action plan on implementation.  And the LLRC itself said it was concerned that the government had not taken adequate, or would not take real efforts to implement the LLRC’s recommendations.

So we are saying that you have to show your citizens that you will not just be taking this report and putting it in a drawer. There has to be real improvement.

So those are the elements of it.

The last comment on this is that up until now, up until this session it has seemed like we’ve had two options at the Council.  Either do nothing and remain silent, which from our point of view would have been in some ways an endorsement of the adequacy of what the government has done, and we knew that was not acceptable.  On the other hand, the other choice that people have called for is an International Commission of Inquiry where the international community takes over and ensures that there’s some kind of international accountability.

We are trying sort of a third way here.  We are acknowledging what the government has done, saying that it is valuable, as are their efforts at progress on a variety of fronts in terms of reconciliation.  However, we are also saying at the same time what you’ve done is not enough and it’s not adequate for your own population, for purposes of reconciliation and lasting peace you need to do more.

I also will briefly mention, obviously Iran is coming up again.  As you may recall, last March we had the first resolution establishing a special rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Iran, and that was a landmark for this Council because it was the first country-specific human rights mechanism that was created since the establishment of the Human Rights Council.  That mandate we expect to be renewed fairly easily, and we hope to be able to increase pressure on the Iranian regime through either increased numbers or other potential language in the resolution to allow the special rapporteur to enter Iran.  Whether that happens or not, we think there’s real value in continuing this mandate because it shows the people inside Iran that the international community is paying attention and that the Iranian narrative about how they treat their people is not fooling anyone.

Other than that, I would say I want to comment on two panel discussions.  There are multiple panel discussions all of which are very interesting and help us with our work.  Two are of particular importance to the United States.

The first one is on Freedom of Expression on the Internet.  And this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and it’s, I believe, obviously the internet is changing the face of media and journalism and it is changing the face of human rights reporting generally, so it is very important and we’re really pleased that this is ongoing.  It’s a subject matter that we will be paying a lot of attention to.

The second one I will mention is the LGBT panel sponsored by South Africa.  I should mention the first one is sponsored by Sweden who has been an outstanding leader on the subject of internet freedom and we are grateful for that.

The LGBT panel is sponsored by South Africa.  We know this is a very very tough issue for many delegations and regions and even a particular continent.  But it is also something that the United States feels strongly about.  Secretary Clinton came and delivered a very strong statement of support for LGBT Rights in December, as you know, and we are proud that this panel is going forward.

I think I’ll just leave it there and maybe we’ll take questions.

Media:  [Inaudible].  At the beginning of your statement you mentioned your cooperation with the new Libyan [inaudible].  But turning to the [inaudible], the UN Watch picked up Libyan [inaudible] last week on LGBT issues which seem to be [inaudible] against any idea of continuing this discussion within the Human Rights Council.  And then of course has been followed up by the OIC [inaudible] issue.  Working with the OIC is one of Secretary Clinton’s big issues as well, working together with the OIC.

How are you going to handle this?

Ambassador Donahoe:  We obviously are going to continue to articulate our firm belief that LGBT people, individuals, deserve the full panoply of human rights protection, as do any others.  We will not shirk from our responsibility to articulate clearly that strong principle which Secretary Clinton demonstrated better than anyone.  Having her come on Human Rights Day and focus her speech on that topic I think is about the clearest demonstration you can have that the United States is living up to its leadership responsibility on this subject.

That doesn’t make it easier, and that doesn’t yet translate into unanimity around the world or a global consensus on this topic.  It does not exist.  And that is exactly what makes it so difficult.

So we will continue to work on this issue.  It will take time.  We are confident that at least in the long run we know where it will come out and we don’t know how long that will be.  We will continue to speak out as strongly as we can to encourage other regions and countries to see this subject as we do, which is where we think the global community will end up

Media:   I was wondering, do you have direct contact with the Syrian delegation?  What are your relations like?  You said you’re really friendly in the corridors and then you get tough with them.

And then I was also wondering what is the best that you can hope for as an outcome in regard to action within the limited framework in which the Council works that you can have for Syria?

Ambassador Donahoe:  On the first topic, first off as a factual matter I have not seen the Syrian Ambassador recently.  And in past sessions you may have observed that I have interacted with him and tried to get him to understand that we were not going to back down, the special session was happening, the resolution was happening, we were not going to be changing the text for him, and so we just tried to work professionally together.

I haven’t seen him in a long time.

Media:  Has he disappeared from Geneva?

Ambassador Donahoe:  I can’t confirm or deny that.  I personally haven’t seen him.  Let me say one other thing which is a year ago when we did the special session on Libya, our relationship with the Libyans was rather strained and yet we were in communication with them.  At that time they were trying to decide what their personal stance vis-à-vis the government would be, and by the time we had, the day we called for the special session, between then and the Friday, they had decided that they would disassociate themselves from the government.

So I can’t tell you if the Syrian Ambassador is facing the same dilemma.

In terms of what we can do here that has an impact with respect to Syria, the international community is struggling with this topic, and I’m not going to tell you we have a silver bullet here.  I can say we are looking to the leadership of the Arab League as one vehicle, and secondly, we are working very hard to convince the other members of the international community who are choosing for whatever reason to continue to support the Assad regime, that they’re making the wrong choice.

So those are two things that we will do.

Third, we will have I think some additional focus this time on humanitarian assistance and figuring out how we can ensure that greater humanitarian access is provided.

And last, of course, we will continue to condemn the increasing violence in the hope that it puts enough pressure on Assad that somehow he realizes he’s got to leave.

Media:  May I quickly follow-up?  Can Russia and China spoil things in terms of outcomes at the Council in regard to Syria?

Ambassador Donahoe:  No.  Ironically, this is the difference between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.  No one has a veto at the Human Rights Council, and that means all of us are equal players and equal voters.  Interestingly, that means that none of us can be spoilers and all of us have to work hard to convince others that our perspective is the right one and that they want to be with us on the right side of history.

Media:  Following what you said, is the international community capable to help the people of Syria, people of other countries are, of other regimes are in danger to it.  So do you think the U.S. is [inaudible], maybe the Security Council is not working, it could work differently?

Ambassador Donahoe:  You know, my responsibilities are at the Human Rights Council, and I don’t think that it’s fair or wise for me to comment on the mechanics of the Security Council.  But I would not yet say that the international community has failed, and I will say we are doing everything we can at least on the human rights front to make sure that we do not fail the people of Syria.  And anything any of you can do to put pressure on others who are supporting Assad I think is the most valuable thing you can do.  We can all work together in that regard.

Media:  I have a question regarding Sri Lanka.  Given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made by the Commission of Inquiry, the [inaudible] Sri Lanka, and given the extent of the NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, what they are proposing, he is very soft glove approach in the resolution.  Is it just a first step, that you say if they aren’t cooperating on this you have harder, stronger measures in the bank, or is it all [you want]?

Ambassador Donahoe:  No.  What we want it real accountability, real implementation, and real reconciliation.  That is what we want as an outcome.

The question is what can we do at the Human Rights Council that supports that?  In our judgment, we could have of course followed the proposal of the NGOs and others to ask for a Commission of Inquiry, basically say that the domestic efforts had not been valuable, and that there was a need, complementarity had failed, and that the international community really was now responsible.  We did not think that either — There was a question of the likelihood of success which we always, we have to be pragmatic.  What can we do?

Secondly, we are in it, it’s a very challenging thing to figure out what will actually work in the present in Sri Lanka?  We are walking a very fine line right now, still trying hard to get the Sri Lankans to consent to our initiative.  As of Monday night when I spoke to the Sri Lankan Ambassador, the answer was no.  No.  They don’t like it.  We think it’s unwise for them to resist and we’ve made it clear, it will go forward and it will succeed.

But at this juncture we felt it a better balance to reach out a hand.  Secretary Clinton has invited the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Peiris to come to Washington.  She herself has said some aspects of your domestic work have been very good.  At the same time she has said clearly and they have made this public in the media, not adequate.  Your efforts at accountability are not adequate.  So it’s not — this binary option — silence –or everything they’ve done domestically is worthless and we’re not working with them — neither of those seemed like the right approach.

To your question of is this the end, is that all, hopefully not.

So either the Sri Lankans will consent, or if they don’t consent they’ll see the outcome and they might ultimately see they’re going to have to do more and they will do more.

The alternative is that — This resolution doesn’t preclude action in June or September or at any other time.  So all options will still be on the table.  This is just a step that we came up with that we thought could succeed and have possibly a positive effect on what the Sri Lankans do.

Media:  You’re not talking about this in your statement, but the situation of Mexico [inaudible] armed conflict [inaudible] neighbors.  So do you think that the Human Rights Council can do more?

Ambassador Donahoe:  I’m sorry to say we have not really done a lot of investigation of this subject.  As you probably know, the Mexican Ambassador here is one of our leaders and is deeply, deeply committed to human rights, to free speech, to women’s rights, to everything.  And it is a topic we can consider and I’m just not really, I haven’t heard anybody suggest that we put forward an initiative, but I would be willing to explore.

Media:  Concerning Iran, there was a first act, ITU, International Telecommunication Union about frequency allocation to Iran.  Did that have anything political or was it purely technical?

My second question, I’m not very familiar with all the structure of the human rights bodies of the UN but I saw a release concerning mountain tribes in Vietnam which sided with the U.S. during the war and which were in fact left to their sad fate for 20 or 30 years, and apparently they are being heard, now their voice is being heard by some UN human rights body.  Do you know anything about that?  And what is the U.S. stand on that?

Ambassador Donahoe:  I am very sorry, I hate to say this, but I don’t know anything about that case so I can’t comment.

And on the ITU, again, I don’t know what happened at the ITU, so I can’t comment.

Media:  You talked earlier about a transformed landscape within the Human Rights Council.  It’s not terribly conspicuously obvious to us, I mean it still looks like the same old cast of the good, the bad and the ugly.  [Laughter].  How do you think —

Ambassador Donahoe:  Well —

Media:  And the second question was specific iterations of [inaudible] which will also be addressed at the Council.  The U.S. hasn’t been very forthright on this issue.  Are you going to take up concerns in the Human Rights community about the conduct of the Bahraini government in dealing with their own protest movement?

Ambassador Donahoe:  Let me start with Bahrain and then I’ll go to the bigger question.  On Bahrain I think our comment is that in that case — Each of these cases of the Arab Awakening, so to speak, is different, and we have to look at the efforts made by each of these governments in their own context.  We are aware that the Bahraini Independent Commission, the BICI, was relatively substantial and the government embraced it to a large extent and we feel fairly positively about that.

We’ve been in conversations with our Bahraini colleagues here and encouraged them to engage even more.  But in the scheme of things, in terms of what we have felt able to put forward as concrete initiatives at the Council, we have chosen a few of these other priorities — Syria, Iran and Sri Lanka — as the ones we have to put our energy into.

In part, as I said, because we judge that the Bahraini efforts have been relatively good.

On the transformed landscape, I will say I think there’s good evidence of fairly substantial improvement in a couple of big ways.  I already mentioned the creation of the special rapporteur, a country-specific resolution last March on Iran.  That was a significant victory with respect to a country that is a serious human rights violator. Before we did it nobody thought it was possible to get from this membership.  That’s one data point

Another data point, freedom of assembly and association.  A very important value for the United States.  Again, would not have been possible two years earlier in the dynamics that existed.  I’m going to comment that at the time there had been a presumption among a certain group of members that somebody would have called for a vote on that.  The usual old bloc.  They would have called for a vote or they would have tried to do amendments from the floor, and in fact the very last request we got was from China to take out, remove protection for human rights defenders, which in the old way of doing business they would have succeeded in getting that amendment.  But they could count.  They didn’t even call for a vote.  They knew they would lose.  I consider that a significant improvement.

Then I would add, the multiple special sessions we’ve had on these urgent crises as they’ve evolved.  Someone said the Arab world, the dynamics in the Arab League and the Arab world have changed dramatically, and that is reflected here.

There has been great Arab leadership on a number of initiatives, and that’s a very important new dynamic.

Last, to me this is the important part.  I think countries are starting to step up and realize they can’t rely on a regional or group position.  They can’t have a bloc mentality based on their geography or whatever, their continent or anything.  And instead, when they push the button — green or red — it is a reflection on the values of their own government and their own countries and citizens.  And I see that working.  I observe —  I’ll give you an example from right now.

I’ve had many many conversations on the topic of Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka has been sort of the taboo subject here.  It’s like that’s the third rail, you don’t touch that one because you’ll lose even though it’s something we should do.  That has not been the response this time.  We have been so pleased with the response of everyone to how this is the right thing to do.  The importance of telling the truth.  The idea that if governments cannot tell the truth about large-scale atrocities, whatever else they’re doing that’s positive can’t eradicate the despair that will be there on the part of the victims.  If that despair isn’t acknowledged or dealt with in some way by the government it will sow seeds of future violence.  People understand that.

So we’re getting a lot of support.  This idea that you tell the truth and you vote your values.  I see that as a transformation.

Media:  Can you touch upon the subject of the DPRK.  I heard that, I understand there will be a special rapporteur’s report [inaudible] Human Rights Council.  Given the fact that the DPRK is now under transition which is [inaudible] in a way from a global perspective, do you see any kind of action or discussion that’s going to happen in the Human Rights Council [inaudible] on the issue of [inaudible]?

Ambassador Donahoe:  Yes.  There will absolutely be conversation, interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on the DPRK.  I don’t think any of us in this room, certainly the membership of this Council, can yet comment on the meaning or direction of the transition of the leadership in the DPRK.  What we can comment on, unfortunately, is the really dire human rights situation there that is, I have to say, one of if not the saddest on the planet.

The utter and extreme isolation of the population in North Korea is just an abomination and it is basically stunting, not just a generation but a whole country of people.  I think it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

Media:  I would like to come back on your comment about freedom of the internet.  We are seeing a pattern where some internet search engines and providers are violating privacy laws and they put out a little apology.  What is the administration going to do concretely to [inaudible] users of the internet that they are protected and not abused when using the internet

Ambassador Donahoe:  I’m going to tell you, internet freedom is probably the most complex topic there is, especially when, as you just did, you move from simple articulation of affirmative requirement — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and association — must be protected on-line as off-line, which is Article 19.  It says through any medium, which was a brilliant inclusion back in 1948 and I think is the lynch-pin of the human rights dimensions.  Through any medium it must be protected.  That is the clear principle we are here to protect.

I am telling you, I’ve been spending a lot of time on this topic, and when you get into the ITU, you get into governance issues, you get into information security issues, you get into cyber warfare, privacy concerns.  It is very complex and what I can tell you is I am working hard on this topic, as are a number of us.  I will tell you, I just had a retreat for 40 ambassadors in Silicon Valley on this topic.

Not to say we have the answers, but to acknowledge the complexity and caution all of our governments from thinking we are certain about the answers and certainly cautioning that government control isn’t the solution or that losing the multi-stakeholder perspective is the right idea.  The reason we’ve had a free internet is because it has been multi-stakeholder.  The reason it functions at all is because it has not been controlled solely by governments.

What the balance will be going forward on these multiple areas of governance, security, privacy?  I can’t sit here and tell you the answer.  But I will tell you it is a top priority for the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton, and we are putting a lot of energy into it.

Media:  On North Korea, very quick.  Could you comment please on China’s decision to send back I think it’s 13 North Korean refugees to North Korea?  They say they’re not refutes, they’re economic migrants, and it’s likely that they will be executed if they are returned.

Ambassador Donahoe:  Let’s put it this way.  I don’t know the case.  I shouldn’t comment on the facts.  But as you’ve described them, it does not sound good.