Thursday, December 14, 2006

The New UN Human Rights Council

Event Title: UN Human Rights Council: Challenges Before the New Human Rights Council
Sponsors: United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) and United Nations Foundation (UNF) in cooperation with the American Bar Association (ABA)
Location: UNF, 4th Floor Conference Room
Date: Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Time: 4:00pm-6:00pm
Approximate Number of Attendees: 50
Intern Attending: Ava Jones

Speakers: Phyllis Bennis, Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies; Dr. Mark P. Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs; Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch; Penny Wakefield, moderator.

This event was the third in a series about the newly formed Human Rights Council which replaced the Commission on Human Rights. The theme for this talk was the U.S. role in promoting international human rights.

Mark Lagon outlined the importance of U.S. influence in promoting human rights abroad, stating that we have the ability to be a leader in the world. He explained that the U.S. has bilateral human rights policies (China would be an example) as well as multilateral policies, such as democracy in the Middle East and the larger Islamic world. The U.S. needs to be an exemplar for human rights, but recent problems such as the War on Terror and the issue of what to do with detainees have hurt our credibility at home and abroad. In terms of the Human Rights Council, he believes that so far it is not an improvement on the old Commission on Human Rights. The Human Rights Council has forty-seven members and its current composition is problematic because Latin American countries are underrepresented. The U.S. chose not to vote for the council or run for it in its opening year, impacting their ability to exert influence. Despite this, Mr. Lagon stated that the U.S. is a very active non-member of the council, giving technical assistance for transitioning governments. Lastly, he said the U.S. should “encourage our democratic partners to work better” when it comes to promoting human rights, especially the European Union.

Phyllis Bennis was the most critical of the U.S., stating that it is an “exemplar of hypocrisy and double standards” with regards to human rights. She criticized the U.S. government for not being transparent enough when it comes to its treatment of detainees. The U.S. is arguably the most powerful country in the UN, but its credibility has decreased because of its actions and legislation on torture. Mrs. Bennis also said that the U.S. needs to “hold itself to a higher standard.” In the War on Terror the U.S. has embraced countries known to be human rights violators because of their strategic locations. Many of their human rights abuses have been documented by the State Department in its reports, but this has not impacted U.S. foreign policy towards those countries. She also stated that the definition of human rights as civil and political rights it too narrow and should be expanded to include social, economic, and cultural rights. She offered three suggestions of what the U.S. can do right now to increase its influence in the world: 1) start implementation, 2) stop hypocrisy, and 3) support the work of the human rights council.

Tom Malinowski agreed with the other panelists that U.S. authority on the subject of human rights is lower than ever. He believes that the U.S. has lost our capacity to convince others to follow its lead because of U.S. detention centers and current debates on detainee rights and the war in Iraq. He argued that the U.S. often uses human rights rhetoric as a pretext for pursuing other goals, which ultimately backfires and hurts U.S. ability to influence other countries. Despite current problems, he believes that the U.S. is “indispensable” to the promotion of human rights throughout the world.

There was a consensus among the panelists that the U.S. needs to be doing more to increase its credibility abroad when it comes to human rights. Many countries expect the U.S. to be a leader in this area and follow the U.S. lead in terms of their own human rights practices. The U.S. does and should remain influential in promoting international human rights.

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