By Robert R. King
On June 19, the United States withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council. In a “blistering critique” announcing the withdrawal, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley “lambasted the council for ‘its chronic bias against Israel’ and lamented the fact that its membership includes accused human rights abusers such as China, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Haley said, “We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Haley for the announcement at the State Department, said, “We have no doubt that there was once a noble vision for this council. But today, we need to be honest—the Human Rights Council is a poor defender of human rights.” He continued: “The only thing worse than a council that does almost nothing to protect human rights is a council that covers for human rights abuses and is therefore an obstacle to progress and an impediment to change. The Human Rights Council enables abuses by absolving wrongdoers through silence and falsely condemning those who have committed no offense. A mere look around the world today demonstrates that the council has failed in its stated objectives.”
This rhetoric from the two top American diplomats justifying the U.S. withdrawal from the UN human rights organization would carry greater conviction if the Trump Administration were not simultaneously involved in one of the most acrimonious controversies thus far about U.S. respect for human rights. The Administration’s policy forcibly to separate young children from their parents as they seek asylum in the United States, the so-called “zero tolerance” policy, has been vigorously criticized by American human rights organizations and churches, as well as by foreign leaders, including many American allies. After blaming Democrats for the policy and demanding that Congress take action to “fix” the problem, President Trump signed an executive order ending family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border to quiet the public uproar.
There is no question that Islamic states have hypocritically used UN organizations to undermine the legitimacy of Israel, and some of the elected member countries on the UN Human Rights Council are indeed guilty of serious human rights abuses. But we saw the spectacle of the United States President going to Capitol Hill to meet with Republican members of the House of Representatives about the festering domestic acrimony over forced family separation of asylum-seekers while at the very same moment just 22 blocks west at the other end of Constitution Avenue the two leading American diplomats are denouncing the UN Human Rights Council for falling short of its high-minded principles.
There is also no question that the Human Rights Council has not fully lived up to the lofty goals and high expectations for defense of human rights. But there is also no question that the Human Rights Council has made a difference in many cases. The key role that the Council played in focusing attention and pressing for improvement on North Korea’s atrocious human rights record is one of the great success stories of the Human Rights Council.
In 2004 the UN human rights body first appointed a Special Rapporteur to report on human rights conditions in North Korea. A UN Special Rapporteur is an independent expert designated to report to a UN body on a particular issue. The Special Rapporteur on human rights conditions in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) presented his first report to the council in 2004, and the mandate for a special rapporteur has been renewed by the Human Rights Council annually since then. In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly in New York also requested that the Special Rapporteur on North Korea human rights annually report to the General Assembly. These regular reports have focused on various aspects of North Korean human rights violations, and the reports provide damning and documented details of the North’s abysmal human rights record.
The three men who have served as Special Rapporteur are distinguished human rights experts who speak with great credibility and experience. The first Rapporteur was Vitit Muntarbhorn (2004-2010), a Thai professor of law at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, who studied at Oxford and Brussels and has an outstanding international reputation in human rights law. In 2004 he received the UNESCO prize for human rights education. The second Special Rapporteur for North Korean human rights was Marzuki Darusman (2010-2016), former member of the Indonesian parliament and former Indonesian Prosecutor General (a position roughly equivalent to the U.S. Attorney General). Darusman has held a number of leading positions in international human rights. The current Special Rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana (2016-present), is an internationally recognized Argentine human rights attorney and professor of law. He was formerly UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar.
In 2013 the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) with the mandate to examine with greater focus the human rights situation in North Korea and make recommendations to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. The three-member commission was chaired by Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia (the Australian Supreme Court) and a prominent international human right lawyer. The two other members were Marzuki Darusman, then the Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights issues who led the major effort for the creation of the Commission of Inquiry, and Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights activist and head of a highly regarded Serbian human rights non-governmental organization.
The creation of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on North Korea human rights abuses was an example of U.S. membership and leadership in the Human Rights Council making a difference. U.S. diplomats worked with the European Union and Japan who took the lead in creating the commission. American efforts with South Korea and other Human Rights Council members was critical to the commission’s establishment.
The COI’s final report was published in February 2014. The report was hailed as “groundbreaking” and a “landmark.” A New York Times journalist called it “the most authoritative assessment of human rights in North Korea.” Resolutions citing the report were adopted in the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, and at the request of the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly has taken up discussion of DPRK human rights annually since 2014—despite the opposition to considering the issue from the Soviet Union and China.
The COI report has more international credibility and legitimacy than any other report or document on DPRK human rights. It was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council by a resolution adopted with overwhelming support of the Council’s 47 member countries. The three outstanding individuals who conducted the investigation were not from the United States, the European Union, Japan or South Korea. When the report was presented, it was endorsed and lauded in resolutions approved overwhelmingly in the Human Rights Council (30 votes for the resolution, 6 against, and 11 abstentions) and the UN General Assembly (116 votes for the resolution, 20 against, and 53 abstentions).
The creation of the Commission of Inquiry and the public hearings held in Bangkok, Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and London were important in raising the public profile of North Korea’s human rights abuses. The availability of COI members to publicly discuss and defend their work gave wide international attention and publicity to their work.
Most important, the COI report has become the definitive document, the internationally recognized and accepted standard of analysis on the North Korean human rights. Following the publication of that document the Human Rights Council accepted the COI recommendation to establish a special UN office in Seoul, South Korea, to monitor and collect information for the UN Human Rights Council on North Korean human rights conditions.
This announcement by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the U.S. Secretary of State that America would withdraw from participation in the UN Human Rights Council is the classic instance of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” I would be the first to admit that the Human Rights Council has serious shortcomings, but the way in which the Council has dealt with North Korea’s human rights record clearly shows that flawed organization can still play an extremely helpful role.
Furthermore, we need the voice of the United States in the Human Rights Council. The United States needs to be engaged with the international community on human rights issues. It serves our national interest, even if we are occasionally subjected to criticism of our own human rights record and even if our allies and our friends are criticized.
When the Human Rights Council was restructured in 2006, the George W. Bush Administration made the decision not to participate in the Council. The reason for that decision was for the same reasons that the Trump Administration announced its withdrawal from participation this week. In 2009 the Obama Administration made the decision to reengage and participate in the Human Rights Council.
In December 2009, two weeks after I was confirmed by the Senate and sworn-in as Special Envoy for North Korea human rights issues, I was the first U.S. ambassador to participate in a regular Human Rights Council meeting—in this case, consideration of North Korea’s human rights record. I was warmly and personally welcomed by diplomats from countries across the spectrum from all parts of the world expressing their pleasure that the United States was participating in these human rights efforts. That included ambassadors from countries whose human rights record we had criticized and continued to criticize, as well as close allies with whom we work closely and share a respect for human rights and democracy. These countries seek the involvement of the United States.
From the perspective of American efforts to press North Korea on its human rights abuses, our withdrawal from participation in the UN Human Rights Council reduces our influence in the most important international organization shaping international efforts against human rights abuses in the North. American absence from the Human Rights Council silences our voice in the key international forum on human rights. This unfortunate action not only weakens our influence, it weakens efforts of the international community by removing our voice, which has been one of the strongest in pressing North Korea. We are unilaterally taking ourselves out of the fight in this most important forum struggling against North Korea’s human rights atrocities.
The world is a safer and better place when the United States—with the values and ideals that we reflect—is a full and active participant in the international community. “Picking up our marbles and going home” is no solution. It does not help solve the issues that concern us, and far greater harm comes to America when we isolate ourselves and minimize the role we can play in shaping the international community.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from UN Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.