Human Rights Council Wrap Up
After 4 weeks, the 22nd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council came to a close last Friday. So here are a few lessons that I learned from my time at the Council:
Noncooperation is the exception, not the rule.
Not to give a political science lesson, but I think it’s helpful to briefly explain a basic rule of international relations. There are three main schools of thought in international relations - realism, liberalism and constructivism. Realism says that survival is the primary goal of states and since the international system is anarchic the way to secure survival is through maximizing power and acting purely out of self-interest. Liberalism has several components, one of which being that states will pursue absolute gains over relative gains, thus allowing more room for cooperation between states. It also states that international organizations can be a useful forum for states to find common interests and work with one another. Constructivism is a whole other animal that for the purposes of this brief explanation I won’t go into, suffice to say there are no real rules in constructivism - if realism and liberalism are the Da Vinci and Michelangelo of international relations theory, constructivism is Jackson Pollock.
I would generally put myself in the liberalism school of thought. I think it’d be tough to pursue a career in international law if I was a realist. But I’m still somewhat skeptical when it comes to states’ cooperation, and I guess on a certain level I did think that the UN Human Rights Council would show me that states are unwilling to make human rights a priority in their national policy and unwilling to pay attention to recommendations of the Human Rights Council - after all their resolutions are not binding, only UN Security Council Resolutions are binding under international law. I have to say I am much more optimistic after my time at the UN HRC however. There are, of course, states that are uncooperative. North Korea gave some very passionate speeches about how their government is chosen by the people and human rights abuses do not occur in their country to the point where I had to wonder if they actually believed it. Iran was somewhat uncooperative as well - mainly to the extent that they refused to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran. There were many countries that were opposed to these country specific mandates. I would agree with this on some level except that the states usually saying this were North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and other states with notoriously bad human rights records. Overall, however, these are the exceptions and not the rule. Most states are very cooperative with special procedures, welcoming them into their countries and cooperating with their investigations and reports and taking steps to implement the recommendations. It is unfortunate, however, that the states that have the worst human rights records tend to be the rogue states that do not cooperate. Despite this, it is helpful to see that the vast majority of countries are willing to take the Human Rights Council seriously and participate constructively in its work.
The US has few to no allies on Israel
The situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories was a major issue that was brought up at the HRC this session, as I’m sure was true for previous sessions. I sat about 5 seats away from Israel’s seat the HRC and not once was it filled by an Israeli representative. Some argue that this is because the Human Rights Council is biased against Israel, that they do not see both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian issue, etc. After attending the Human Rights Council, I find it hard to believe that all the human rights experts that spoke on the issue have a bias against Israel. I wrote a paper earlier this semester on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and there really is no way to make the argument under international law that the Palestinian people do not have a right to self-determination in the form of their own state. It’s also impossible to deny that, under international law, the territory that Israel gained after the 1948 UN Mandate for Palestine was gained illegally through force. This is not to say that Palestinians have not acted contrary to international law through their own use of force but this does not justify decades of occupation. Perhaps I will be ostracized from the United States for these comments but as an aspiring international human rights lawyer I can’t hep but view the issue from that perspective. The overwhelming consensus in the international community should also be a sign. It is not just Iran and Syria calling for Palestinian statehood, it is Western European countries as well. 4 resolutions were presented by Palestine at the Human Rights Council this session. On each resolution there was only one vote against it, and that was from the United States. This is not to say of course that I am anti-Israel or am going to go on some insane crusade saying that Israel does not have the right to exist. Israel does have the right to exist as a sovereign state free from external force. But Palestine has that right too, and that can only occur if Israel ends its occupation of Palestinian territory and stops violating the basic human rights of the Palestinian people.
The Battle of Cultural Relativism vs. Universality wages on
I guess I had hoped that by 2013, 65 years after the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this debate would be over but my experience at the Human Rights Council showed me that it’s still not over. The cultural relativism side of this argument says that every society has its own distinct culture and traditions and that outside powers cannot impose their views on this society for any reason, including for human rights abuses. The universality argument says that certain human rights are universal and inalienable and cultural traditions cannot justify them. A good example of this is in the case of women’s rights. Cultural relativism would argue that if according to a society’s values and traditions, women are obliged to be submissive to their husbands, to accept arranged marriages, to produce children and to raise the children in the home that those are the traditions of the society and no one should interfere with that. Universalism would argue that education and freedom of expression are universal rights, that the right of a child to be free from a forced marriage is universal and that the freedom to choose one’s life path, be it to work or to stay at home, is a universal right. I, and most of the civilized world, are on the side of universalism. I can see where this gets tricky with the idea of democracy, as I would say that democracy is necessary for the true fulfillment of all human rights, but with the principle of sovereignty I can at least understand why the UN tends to back away from this to a certain extent. Yet the number of times I heard states (and almost exclusively states with notoriously horrible human rights abuses) talk about Western imperialism infringing upon their sovereignty was a little absurd to me since we were at the Human Rights Council. Human rights are not a western phenomenon that are solely available to western societies. Human rights are human, it does not matter your race, ethnicity, culture, national identity, gender, etc., by definition they belong to all human beings.
A good example of this is a resolution that was initially brought forward but later withdrawn. It was on the Right of the Family. This sounds relatively benign, but the problem was that it addressed the family as a unit, not the rights of each individual member of the family. That in itself is problematic, but what was more concerning was the fact that it defined the family in a very specific way - mother, father, children. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of different kinds of families in the world - single parent, grandparents raising children, same-sex couples, etc. You cannot define what is a family in narrow terms and then create certain rights for that unit that don’t apply to each individual member of the family. The fact that this resolution never made it to the floor is a sign that the situation is improving, but the fact that the UN Human Rights Council is still dealing with issues like this is disappointing.
Overall the Human Rights Council was an incredible experience. I got to hear brilliant experts speak on important human rights issues, hear the opinions of a wide variety of countries on issues, witness resolutions be drafted, see the cooperation of governments and civil society, meet diplomats from around the world, and experience all the hard work and effort that really goes into the international promotion of human rights. My colleagues at the Mission of Honduras are amazing - seeing how much they truly cared about the issues, the tireless effort they put in to addressing human rights situation in Honduras and their commitment to the difficult task of international diplomacy was truly inspiring.
Of course, I am not done with my internship yet! I have the week off of work which is absolutely magnificent. Semana Santa is a very important holiday in Honduras so we’re not in this week which means I’m leaving on Wednesday to go to Edinburgh and Dublin. After that I’ll be back in the office, attending meetings at the UN, writing up briefs and reports, translating documents, etc. It’ll be quieter than it was during the Human Rights Council but I’m excited nonetheless to see other aspects of the United Nations. I can tell I’ve got a lot more to learn.