Reflections on the First Decade of the UN Human Rights Council and the Case for U.S. Engagement


U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

February 2, 2016

CHRGJ welcomed Ambassador Keith Harper to NYU Law to discuss the first decade of the UN Human Rights Council and US engagement therein. CHRGJ Faculty Co-Chair Margaret Satterthwaite introduced Harper with questions about the role of the US in engaging with the Human Rights Council.

Harper noted that though human rights concepts appear to have always been a part of the architecture of modern, political diplomacy and life, they are actually only approximately 70 years in the making. Early UN efforts to create a Human Rights Commission led by Eleanor Roosevelt are largely considered a success, however shortly after its inception, the Human Rights Commission began to be seen as an ineffective political instrument by some civil society organizations and states.

After the call by Kofi Annan to revive this important human rights body, the Human Rights Council was formed and with it came  renewed drive for improved human rights organizations and mechanisms, which resulted in the development of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Ambassador Harper considers the UPR to be the single most important development in human rights accountability in the last 40 years. Previously, states considered review to be a “scarlet letter” which singled them out for scrutiny, but under the UPR, because each state undergoes review, the stigma, he argued, is removed. As each state gives recommendations to the others, individual  states can work through the process of accepting recommendation and implementing changes.

Harper noted that during the Bush administration, US engagement and leadership in the Human Rights Council was limited. In contrast, the increased priority of human rights engagement by President Obama has returned the US to leadership though increased participation.

Harper noted two barometers for successful US engagement with the Human Rights Council: 1) Does the institution protect and promote human rights around the world? 2) Is it furthering US foreign policy in the world and demonstrating that abiding by human rights norms creates a more prosperous and secure world.

Looking to the future, Harper applauded the leadership of Latin America toward the creation of a Mandate on sexual orientation and gender identity and advocated a continuing strong leadership of the US, backed by the support of other HRC members.

Watch the video of the event below.