If you're inclined to think that "U.N. Human Rights Council" is a contradiction in terms -- and really, who isn't? -- you should look at a clip of council president Laura Dupuy Lasserre, a Uruguayan, warning a senior Bahraini official not to retaliate against activists who came to Geneva to testify about Bahrain's dreadful human rights record. "We reject such allegations," says an indignant Salah bin Ali Mohammed Abdulrahman. "We have entered a new phase in the history of our country." Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Belarus, those champions of human rights, leap to his defense, and administer a dressing-down to the council president. And Dupuy Lasserre stands her ground. "I wish to renew my expression of confidence that there will be no kind of problem involved with this," she concludes.
This is the same U.N. Human Rights Council that President George W. Bush refused to join on the grounds that it would be packed with human rights abusers who viewed Israel as the only nation worthy of criticism. His successor Barack Obama reversed that decision as part of his commitment to multilateral institutions, a move conservatives criticized, and still criticize, as naïve.
It's true that the UNHCR remains fixated on Israel; the council has a standing agenda item requiring an annual report on Israel's human rights record in the West Bank. But that's not the whole truth. The council has responded to the Arab Spring with resolutions sharply criticizing the regimes in Libya and Syria; as I write, the council is in special session to respond to the massacre in the Syrian villages of al-Houla. I'm surprised -- and critics on the right should be very surprised -- at the extent to which the United States has been able to make the Human Rights Council more effective by joining it and intensely engaging in its work, which is precisely what Obama predicted what happen.
"Until the U.S. joined," says Paula G. Schriefer, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, "victories were counted in the number of times you could stave off disaster." Schriefer would know: Until earlier this year she worked at the human rights organization Freedom House, where she spent years writing dismal report cards on the performance of the council and its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. Most notoriously, after the council held a special session in 2009 on Sri Lanka's savage war against Tamil insurgents, it issued a resolution congratulating Colombo for the campaign, despite the death of tens of thousands of civilians. This past March, however, despite overwhelming pressure from the Sri Lankan government, the council voted to require Sri Lanka to investigate those deaths, and ordered the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights to report on its compliance. "It's becoming the new normal that the council does the right thing," Schriefer says.
Admonishing human rights abusers like Bahrain, Syria or Sri Lanka will not, of course, change their behavior. In the end, only internal pressure can compel an oppressive regime to do so. But these public dramas help empower internal critics: the Bahrain Center for Human Rights exulted at the pasting government officials took in Geneva. And states cannot dismiss the council as a tool of the West; many of the toughest criticisms have come from emerging democracies, including Brazil and Mexico. India, long a protector of authoritarian allies, voted for the Sri Lanka resolution.
Indeed, the council's effectiveness reflects the growing importance of non-Western rights-respecting countries. In years past, even Third World democracies could be counted on to toe the line laid down by states like Cuba, which dominated internal debate in the so-called Group of 77 developing nations. That's no longer true, and democracies like Brazil take offense at the claim that human rights are a peculiarly Western preoccupation. These states are increasingly eager to stand up for their democratic principles in international fora (though they continue to treat Israel as the one democracy worthy of perpetual condemnation).
At the same time, the U.S. role has been vital. Obama appointed as ambassador Eileen Donahoe, a major Democratic donor (though also a scholar at Stanford University). But Donahoe has surprised human rights activists who saw her as a classic political appointee. Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, describes Donahoe as "the best diplomat the U.S. has ever had in Geneva." Donahoe has worked closely with developing-word democracies as well as with Western allies to pass country-specific resolutions, to restore a special rapporteur on Iran and the like.