Annual Meeting 2011

Libya’s Ouster from Human Rights Council Shows Benefits of US Participation, Panelists Say

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Libya’s ouster from the United Nations Human Rights Council this spring is evidence of progress, according to participants at an ABA Annual Meeting program.

Panelists said the Human Rights Council isn’t perfect, but it is getting better, especially since the U.S. began participating in 2009. The council performed “really pretty well” in the past year, said Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy for Freedom House, a group that issues annual surveys on freedom in the world.

In 2006, the Human Rights Council replaced the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which had been criticized as being ineffective. It’s “more than just a name change,” according to panel moderator Penny Wakefield, chair of the International Human Rights Committee of the ABA’s Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. The council has different election procedures, more frequent meetings and a mechanism for suspending member countries that suppress human rights, panelists said. It also conducts universal periodic reviews of countries that previously managed to evade human rights scrutiny.

Countries being evaluated are visited by U.N. experts known as special rapporteurs who have access to government officials and victims of human rights violations. Panelist Gay McDougall served as a special rapporteur, visiting remote and rural areas to investigate abuses. “People were deeply impressed that someone cared from outside their country,” she said.

The U.S. has appointed a full-time ambassador to the council and is building cross-regional coalitions to promote human rights, according to Ted Piccone, senior fellow and deputy director for policy at the Brookings Institution. “I think we have to stay involved in the game,” he said.

In congressional testimony in March, Piccone said the U.S. was instrumental in demanding that Libya be removed from the council. He also credited a “quiet U.S. campaign” with the withdrawal of Iran’s candidacy to the council in 2010.

The program was called “The U.N. Human Rights Council: What Does Its First Five Years Say About Its Future?” The primary sponsor was the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.

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