The Importance of Human Rights Leadership

Yesterday in Geneva, I had the honor of representing the United States at the UN Human Rights Council on its 10th anniversary. The United States’ commitment to the mandate and mission of the Council runs deep into our nation’s history, where it is engraved into our nation’s founding values and etched into the standards we strive to hold ourselves to every day. The fight for greater freedom, greater respect, greater dignity is a unifying narrative of our humanity in all its diversity, and that is why we are very proud to join this Council in upholding our common responsibility to this universal pursuit.

Every day, headlines from around the world only strengthen the case for the principled, balanced, and proactive leadership of the Human Rights Council. In Ukraine, South Sudan, Syria, North Korea, and in so many other places, deplorable violations of human rights occur with impunity. A growing number of countries are laying siege to civil society, while unprecedented numbers of refugees mean more and more people -- especially women and children -- are vulnerable to predation, trafficking, and abuse. And in ways big and small, violent extremism has left its tragic mark in every corner of the globe.

This is a time when the Human Rights Council’s role as a guardian of our global fundamental rights and freedoms is more important than ever. This Council has an obligation and a mandate to shine a bright light on grievous violations of human rights and help hold perpetrators accountable. When it does, we see the difference it can make.

The Council has demonstrated positive leadership through the emergency Special Sessions on Burundi and Iraq, the creation of special rapporteurs on Iran and Belarus, and mandates for the Office of the High Commissioner and UN panels to examine human rights in South Sudan and Burundi.

We’ve seen the value of the Council’s new tools, like the universal periodic review process, and technical support for countries like Colombia, Mali, and the Central African Republic.

We’ve seen the importance of establishing Commissions of Inquiry into gross human rights violations in Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea in order to lay the groundwork for the arrival of justice and the importance of the UN Voluntary Funds for Victims of Torture for those rebuilding their lives. And we have seen the hope and promise of nations, like Burma and Sri Lanka, taking stock of the aspirations of their citizens and setting out on a new journey to meet them.

While we celebrate and support their progress, we believe it is important for the Council to remain engaged, as the governments confront their legacies of human rights violations and address the challenges that remain. The Council must also continue to act on issues of anti-discrimination and inclusion at a time when people are targets of violence simply because of who they are -- because of their sexual orientation, their gender identity, political beliefs, or their religion. We believe the Council must do more to better protect the human rights of marginalized individuals.

The United States is greatly encouraged by the work of the Human Rights Council, but that work is undermined by its bias against Israel. The Council’s persistence to delegitimize and isolate Israel profoundly limits the good it can accomplish. We will continue to protect Israel’s legitimacy on the world stage and fight for its full and equal participation in UN institutions as we have done for President Obama’s entire presidency.

The work of democracy is painstakingly hard. In our own nation’s history, it has been marked by times of struggle and setback, when the results of our efforts do not meet our expectations and our actions fall short of our ideals.

The measure of our strength as nations is how we face these times -- whether we retreat into destabilizing tactics of repression and sectarianism or whether we confront our own imperfections with honesty, openness, and transparency. The consequences of this choice are playing out across the world today, and the results could not be clearer. Advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms: this is not a cause for vulnerability and insecurity. To the contrary, it is our greatest reservoir of strength and stability.

About the Author: Antony Blinken serves as Deputy Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State.

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Deputy Secretary Antony Blinken speaking with the international media at the UN Office at Geneva March 2 after delivering the U.S. national statement before the UN Human Rights Council. [U.S. Mission Geneva photo]
March 3, 2016

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