#GlobalLeadership: A Record of U.S. Engagement at the UN Human Rights Council

In 2009, President Obama decided that the United States should seek election to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), a body with a decidedly mixed record of success in promoting and protecting human rights. Seven years later, the United States has completed two active terms on the Council -- terms that featured new country-specific initiatives on Burma, Iran, North Korea (DPRK), Syria, Sri Lanka, South Sudan and others, groundbreaking efforts on LGBTI rights as well as women’s rights, and a renewed focus on the universality of human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly and religion. Still, the Council remains afflicted with a persistent anti-Israel bias and problematic membership issues. 

Last week, I traveled to Washington, DC, to talk about the continuing U.S. determination to maximize the Council’s potential. Together with senior leadership from the Bureau of International Organization Affairs and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, I testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, where I discussed our record of engagement with the HRC. I also took the opportunity to meet with think-tanks, civil society organizations, and the media.   

My message to all of these interlocutors followed the same theme: U.S. engagement at the HRC has made a critical difference. That difference can be measured in the increased attention to country-specific actions taken by the Council as well as a re-focus on core civil and political rights. In the first year of its existence, ten years ago, all but one country-specific resolution that it passed focused on Israel. After the United States joined, the Council has passed an annual average of 27 resolutions on country situations around the world -- places such as South Sudan, Burma, North Korea, Syria, and Belarus. The number on Israel -- while still too high -- has been relatively constant.  

A screen shows Ambassador Harper as he testifies at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on “Ten Years Later: The Status of the United Nations Human Rights Council” on  May 17, 2016. [State Department photo]

It can be measured in the dramatic re-direction of the Council’s focus. In the three and half years before the United States became a member of the HRC, the Council held 11 special emergency sessions, nearly half of which were dedicated to Israel/Palestinian issues. In the six years of U.S. membership (September 2009-December 2015), the Council held 13 emergency sessions, and only two were focused on Israel, with the others focused (appropriately) on some of the world’s most appalling human rights environments, including Quaddafi’s Libya and Asad’s Syria.

Our impact can also be measured in the Council’s effective use of so-called special procedures -- independent human rights experts charged with mandates to report and advise on human rights. Since 2009, the Council has created Special Rapporteurs on Iran, Belarus, and Syria, and Commissions of Inquiry for DPRK, Eritrea, and Syria, as well as a Commission on human rights in South Sudan. These special procedures shine sunlight into darkened spaces, forcing offending regimes out of the shadows and into the harsh glare of sustained international scrutiny. 

The value of the Council is not just measured in addressing the negatives, but also in its capacity to promote a positive international agenda. Throughout its two terms on the Council, the United States actively and vocally made the case for American values and priorities. We sponsored resolutions on the protection of Internet Freedom, Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly, and Freedom of Expression. We worked with key partners to focus discourse on stopping discrimination in all its forms, including against LGBTI persons. And indeed, worked tirelessly with partners and allies from around the globe to pass groundbreaking resolutions on addressing discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons. We promoted the essential idea that civil society is key to good governance and defended the participatory rights of civil society, whom repressive regimes often attempt to silence, even in the Council chamber. 

Ambassador Harper with President of UNA-NCA Ambassador Don Bliss (retired) during a conversation at the American Foreign Service Association in Washington, DC,  May 17, 2016. [State Department photo]

To be sure, the HRC has flaws– serious human rights violators continue to convince their friends to vote them into Council seats where they can better defend their brutish, unacceptable behavior. The Council’s agenda item 7, focusing on Israel, remains an unfair bias that challenges the Council’s legitimacy. During our tenure on the Council, the United States chipped away at this corrosive –hyper-focus on the State of Israel, including pushing for Israel to obtain membership in a regional group for the first time in Geneva. To continue this chipping away we must continue our steadfast engagement.  

By any measure, U.S. engagement with the UN Human Rights Council has been influential, positive, and enduring. It has led to innumerable examples of improved human rights on the ground. I believe firmly that this record reveals the very real value and potential of the Council as a force for promoting and protecting human rights around the world. But what the last decade has demonstrated is that for the Council to live up to its full potential and address its existing flaws will continue to require full engagement of the United States of America. 

About the Author: Ambassador Keith Harper serves as the U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and International Organizations in Geneva.

Editor's Note: This story also appears in the Department of State's Foggy Bottom Publication on Medium.com.

For more information:



Claudio F.
November 21, 2016
I think that all human rights that many people believe in, must be respected according international laws that many countries are compromise to, with internal laws and external agreements. I think that guided by consist universal human values, those agreements as others, take the same form and way, that any other international agreement.
U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper at a session on mainstreaming human rights on the opening day of the 31st Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. [U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers]
Posted by Keith Harper
May 25, 2016


Latest Stories

January 19, 2017

What We Got Right

With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the… more