Ambassador Keith Harper
United States Representative to the Human Rights Council
31st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Opening Remarks at a Press Brifefing
March 24, 2016
Good afternoon folks. Thank you for coming today.
There’s been a lot of activity during this session and I wanted to take a moment and provide the United States views on it. I wanted to mention some of the important developments and also some of the continuing challenges of the Council. So I have a short statement and then we’ll take some questions.
As you saw today and yesterday, the Council showed that when the international community is united, we can deliver forceful messages about the importance of promoting and protecting human rights. When the Council speaks with a unified voice – when it speaks by consensus – it always speaks more powerfully.
From North Korea to South Sudan, the Council did indeed speak by consensus. The Council made clear that it is unacceptable for gross human rights violations to continue. It is the job of the Council to shine the brightest possible spotlight on the world’s most egregious abuses.
The United States was pleased to cosponsor the resolution on human rights in the DPRK led by Japan and the European Union that established a panel of experts to explore appropriate approaches for accountability. This resolution should be a clear signal to leaders who rule with impunity that they will ultimately be held to account for systematic violations of human rights, such as mass labor camps, extrajudicial killings and the other horrors that were well documented by the Council’s Special Rapporteur and Commission of Inquiry.
On South Sudan, we created a new type of special procedure mechanism, a three-expert Commission to monitor the absolutely deplorable human rights situation in South Sudan. This mechanism also holds out the possibility that if a transitional government of national unity in South Sudan is formed – as the United States hopes one will be– and meets certain benchmarks, the Commission can offer guidance to South Sudan about how to overcome this history of violence and begin a pathway towards healing and transitional justice. We want to thank our partners in the core group – Albania, Paraguay, and the UK. We also want to thank the leadership of the African Union and the vast majority of states in the African Group, especially the leadership of South Africa.
We were proud to have been a member of the core groups that renewed the Commission of Inquiry in Syria and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. These special procedures have proven critical in documenting human rights violations and abuses in those countries and establishing a basis for ultimate accountability.
With respect to Iran, we have said repeatedly that the fact that there is an agreement on the nuclear issue should in no way distract from the continuing human rights violations in Iran. Indeed, now is the time to re-emphasize the need for Iran to take affirmative and significant steps to address its many human rights problems, including ensuring fundamental freedoms of expression, association, assembly, religion, and belief.
The Council also passed important resolutions on Guinea, Mali, Haiti, and Libya that aim to help provide important technical assistance. Along with Myanmar, for which the Council also renewed a Special Rapporteur, we salute these states for the cooperative approach they have taken with the Human Rights Council. Where states are cooperating with mechanisms and show political will to address human rights challenges they face, Council action should be shaped accordingly.
We hope each of these states maintains the political will that is essential to address effectively past and present human rights challenges and move toward a brighter future for their peoples.
If those states show such political will, the United States and the Council remain steady partners to help support their path to a safer, more secure, and more prosperous future based on the rule of law.
The United States stands firmly with human rights defenders and will continue to defend the rights of individuals to protest peacefully. We were pleased to see those resolutions pass the Council. But we remain deeply concerned about the tremendous number of hostile amendments filed against these texts. Why did states, including Russia, file more than 30 amendments to these texts to eliminate the words “human rights defenders” and “women human rights defenders” when they have joined consensus on resolutions about those exact topics in the past?
We were disappointed to see the return of another discredited procedural tactic — a no action motion — used on the Iran resolution. Fortunately, the Council spoke by an overwhelming majority of states from all regions of the globe voted down this ploy to avoid scrutiny and ultimately voted to renew Iran’s special rapporteur. Council members are elected to the Council to vote – not hide. The states who voted for a no action motion failed at living up to this basic duty of membership.
The Council will need to keep working to fix these systematic weaknesses. And the Council is made weaker by the presence of major human rights violators among the Council’s 47 members – states that use their membership to resist scrutiny of the human rights records of themselves and their friends.
In this regard, we were perplexed that Russia continues to politicize the key issues of the independence of the judiciary in a resolution on integrity of the judicial system. The international community may view this resolution as ironic, particularly given its sponsorship by Russia, which just orchestrated a deeply flawed, show trial and conviction of Ukrainian pilot and Rada member Nadiya Savchenko.
The United States was pleased to read at this session a joint statement expressing concerns about deteriorating trends on human rights in China. We hope Chinese authorities will reinforce respect for international human rights obligations and the rule of law in the wake of incidents such as a crackdown against rights lawyers and civil society and the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers forcibly returned to the mainland to stand public show trials.
The United States remains deeply troubled with this Council’s stand-alone agenda item directed at Israel and the slate of one-sided resolutions. Especially disturbing is today’s resolution calling on OHCHR to implement a database of businesses operating in settlements. This is an unprecedented step taken by the Council, one not applied to businesses operating in the DPRK, Eritrea, or any other state. This only serves to reinforce the one-sided nature of the Council’s actions against Israel and its biased agenda item 7 directed exclusively at Israel. We also remain deeply concerned by the call for such a database because it is far outside this Council’s scope of authority and because of the enormous waste of resources that it will involve.
But we hope that the Council’s systematic flaws do not outshine the positive work that was accomplished in the past month. From Burma to South Sudan to the DPRK, the Council spoke forcefully to the importance of improving human rights even in the most challenging environments. And on thematic matters from the rights of people with disabilities to the importance of freedom of religion and belief, the Council made clear that there is much we can do if we work together.