Why a U.S. Exit from the UNHRC is Counterproductive

by Marie Wilken

On Tuesday, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the first time. The UNHRC adopts resolutions and orders investigations into governments’ violations of human rights. Though the United States began a new three-year term in January, there are rumors it is assessing the possibility of pulling out of the council. During her appearance and in an op-ed in The Washington Post, Haley asserted that the council gives too much negative attention to Israel and that many of its 47 members are serious human rights violators. A politically-motivated exit from the council, however, is a counterproductive strategy, not a solution to the United States’ objections.

The UNHRC is undeniably flawed. As with most political bodies, politics often sway decisions, and some voices are given more weight than others. Also as with other political bodies, loopholes distort well-intentioned rules of operation. For example, countries are elected to the UNHRC through a regional voting bloc system, but because backroom negotiations often result in a noncompetitive number of candidate countries, many human rights-violating countries are elected to the council. In her op-ed, Haley does suggest worthwhile changes – one of which is addressing this issue by making the voting for membership more competitive and inviting true consideration of countries’ human rights records.

If the United States wishes to see these changes, it should use its seat to continue to advocate for them. Disengaging from the council entirely would be counterproductive to its goals. A January Council on Foreign Relations report found that U.S. involvement in the UNHRC has “improved the body’s performance in several ways.” These even include the Trump administration’s objections to the UNHRC; the report found that U.S. involvement in the council can combat anti-Israel bias and encourage accountability for countries that violate human rights. It also found that the United States could create further positive change through “catalytic leadership” – not by withdrawing. Many fear that a U.S. withdrawal could allow for even more human rights violations. A U.S. departure would not end the discourse on Israel. If anything, it could encourage it.

Furthermore, consideration of withdrawing from the UNHRC follows a trend of the United States retreating from international cooperation such as the Paris climate accord and President Donald Trump’s criticism of the U.N. and NATO. This goes further back than Trump’s administration, though: the United States has a tendency to not sign onto international agreements or resolutions that have global consensus. (For example, only seven of the 194 U.N. countries have not ratified the U.N. Convention to Reduce All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the United States is one of them.)

This creates contradictions in U.S. policies regarding human rights and international intervention and cooperation. International cooperation toward ideals as morally unambiguous as women’s rights or human rights is criticized as too much of an international intervention and a threat to sovereignty for the United States. However, the United States has no problem intervening in other countries using more extreme means such as military intervention. And what has the United States often used to justify this intervention? Human rights. This hypocrisy is heightened by the Trump administration’s disregard for human rights in other arenas, such as its immigration policies, friendliness with Russia, and the ban on Muslims.

If the United States’ goal truly is to strengthen the UNHRC, its strategy should not be to delegitimize it. A senator unhappy with Congress’s political agenda, mode of operation, or composition would not resign in protest. Why? Because it’s better to be an active force working for change than to quit. Institutions like the UNHRC, though flawed, have merit. Change from within is more powerful than a denunciation and resignation. Exiting the council would place politics above the mission of human rights. To improve the council and signal U.S. devotion to human rights, the United States should heighten, not end, its involvement in the UNHRC.

Photo credit: United States Mission Geneva Flickr (CC-BY-ND-2.0)

Yes, Human Rights belong in the UN Security Council, but they also belong in the White House

As global tensions mount and with daily atrocities in the news, there is increasing concern over how to protect civilians and vulnerable populations. The US holds the Presidency of the UN Security Council for April and has a chance to take a strong stance in defense of human rights. Instead, the US’ plans to hold an open briefing on human rights at the Security Council has some concerned it will serve to undermine already existing international bodies devoted to protecting human rights and further polarize attempts to address human rights abuses.

The discussion is being branded as the first ever human rights debate in the Council, which is not entirely true. Human rights are regularly discussed in thematic agendas and contexts such as peacekeeping, issuing of sanctions, or when setting up commissions of inquiry or referrals to the International Criminal Court. Viewed in isolation, a discussion highlighting the nexus of human rights and international peace and security is welcome and appears extremely timely. For some time, advocates and the UN have been calling for a preventative approach by putting human rights at the heart of the Security Council’s actions, given the Council’s failure to act in light of the most egregious human rights abuses.

ISIS is Committing Genocide: Now What?

by Jessica Zaccagnino

On March 17th, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is committing acts of genocide against Yazidis and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria, launching the United States into a complex discussion of how to feasibly prosecute ISIS. Although there is not universal ascension to the Genocide Convention, customary international law has enshrined obligations of the international community to prevent, suppress, and punish perpetrators of genocide. Akila Radhakrishnan, the Legal Director of the GJC, emphasized in an interview that “the prohibition on genocide is actually considered to be so widely important that it has attained an even higher status of customary international law called jus cogens,which means it is absolutely non-derogable in every context.” The United States, party to the Genocide Convention, is required by both international conventions and customary international law to take action against genocide. Declaring that ISIS is committing is relatively easy, but actually prosecuting ISIS poses a unique set of challenges in part due to their non-state actor status: logistical, legal, and otherwise.

The prosecution of ISIS for genocide raises numerous, difficult questions: first, what body should carry out trials? In a resolution released days prior to Kerry’s announcement, Congress indicated support for trial in an internationally-run court, such as the International Criminal Court, or an entirely new tribunal, would be the best course of action. The White House has yet to indicate a plan of prosecution. Similar questions of logistics, such as who to hold responsible and where to hold large numbers of detainees, have also been raised. The existence of a defined administrative hierarchy within ISIS raises questions as to what extent subordinates should be held accountable for acts planned by their superiors; however, this is a question that plagues most tribunals.

In terms of prosecuting foreign fighters, it will likely be easier for the United States to turn over detainees to Iraq, an ally, than to Syria, as the US has been supporting rebel groups wishing to oust President Bashar Assad. Since ISIS utilizes many foreign fighters, estimated at 27,000, the use of national jurisdiction over these fighters may open up opportunities for a case in the ICC, even though Iraq and Syria are not party to the Rome Statute, or domestic trials in the US if extradited. The final problem is one of evidence: genocide is a very difficult crime to prove. Due to the “specific intent” portion of the definition, more extensive evidence is required than general charges of crimes against humanity or war crimes. This means, in order to prosecute ISIS, there must be a careful collection of evidence, all while in an active war zone.

To successfully prosecute ISIS for crimes of genocide, the US and international community will have to parse through numerous complex challenges in the near future and focus their energy not on only combatting ISIS militarily, but also constructing a clear prosecutorial strategy.

Although prosecuting ISIS for crimes of genocide poses a unique set of challenges, they are not impossible to overcome. The United States and the global community have a duty to prosecute crimes of genocide under international humanitarian law. ISIS’ prosecution, with the US playing an active role, is of utmost importance, especially now that both the US and UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria have come to the consensus that ISIS is perpetuating genocide. Countries must engage with these challenges proactively and address them head on in order to make substantial progress towards prosecution.

Clickhere to read the full interview with Akila Radhakrishnan and Grant Shubin, lawyers at Global Justice Center, about the US’ declaration of ISIS’ genocide.

UN Security Council Adopts Eighth Resolution on Women, Peace & Security, Linking the Agenda to Countering Violent Extremism

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - October 14, 2015

[NEW YORK, NY] – Yesterday, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted its eighth resolution on Women, Peace & Security, directly connecting the global agenda on combating violent extremism and terrorism to women’s experiences of conflict. The new Resolution 2242 emphasizes women’s role in preventing violent extremism and recognizes that sexual and gender-based violence can be part of the strategic objectives and ideology of terrorist groups. The Resolution comes at a time when unspeakable atrocities by groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS dominate headlines, including sexual slavery, forced marriage, rape and forced pregnancy, with some of these crimes possibly amounting to genocide.

Learn from Srebrenica and Recognize Boko Haram Violence as Genocide

July 11th, 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica and the resultant genocide. In response to the anniversary of the massacre, The Economist published an article titled “Stop Genocide Early” which calls for early action by the international community in conflict situations.

On July 11th, 1995 Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic overthrew UN Dutch peacekeepers’ “safe area” of Srebrenica. The worst violence to happen in Europe since World War II ensued. Mladic was able to carry out this violence with impunity due to a deadlock between the United States and NATO. This hesitancy to act resulted in roughly 8,000 deaths and gave birth to the UN’s “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. This doctrine states that countries are morally obligated to prevent genocide that is taking place in other countries. It is immoral to sit idly by while people are being massacred. “This is the chief lesson of Srebrenica: governments should heed the early signs of mass slaughter and act swiftly to prevent it.”

In northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram is forcibly transferring and abducting children with the intention of destroying the Christian community. The targeted abduction and forced religious conversion of the Chibok schoolgirls is genocide, and action must be taken to stop this violence.

On April 14, 2015 the Global Justice Center sent a letter to the International Criminal Court prosecutor urging her to charge Boko Haram with genocide in her investigation of their crimes. Formally declaring Boko Haram’s actions as genocide will send other countries the important message that they have a moral, humanitarian obligation to put an end to the brutality.

The international community must learn from the mistakes made at Srebrenica 20 years ago by recognizing the forced abductions and violence perpetrated by Boko Haram as genocide. The world must act swiftly in providing aid to the victims and must work together to stop Boko Haram.

Read the full article here.

Read about GJC’s Genocide project here.

Countdown to August 12th: Will the U.S. Step Up to the Plate at This Year’s Universal Periodic Review?

At the 2nd Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States, five countries- Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom- urged the U.S. to reconsider its stance on the Helms Amendment. This amendment makes it illegal for any U.S. foreign aid to be directed to abortion services. This leaves many women and girls who are victims of war rape no choice but to carry the child of their rapist or unsafely try to abort it themselves. The Helms Amendment impinges upon the rights of women and girls in conflict, and is in violation of the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Geneva Conventions.

The UN Security Council, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, countries and organizations around the world have recognized the gravity of the Helms Amendment and the necessity for clarification so that women and girls in conflict can have access to the medical care that they need.

Out of the 293 women and girls who were rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria, one-third of them are pregnant. 214 of these women and girls are being denied proper care, and this is the fate of many others around the world.

The Obama administration has 3 months to respond to these charges and overturn the Helms Amendment and its abortion ban. GJC encourages President Obama to respond to these suggestions as soon as possible, as the end of the 3-month time frame for U.S. response to UPR recommendations, falls on August 12th, 2015. August 12th is the anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, and is also the inspiration for GJC’s August 12th Campaign to “Ensure the Right to Safe Abortion for Women and Girls Raped in Armed Conflict.”

Pressure is mounting and the clock is ticking. Will the U.S. overturn the Helms Amendment by the deadline, and show the world that it is upholding its obligations under the Geneva Conventions?

Click here to read more. 

Human Rights Hypocrisy: Burma’s Lieutenant General Ko Ko, Suspected of Crimes Against Humanity, to Lead Burma’s Delegation to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review

In November 2014, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic published a legal memorandum revealing that Lieutenant General Ko Ko is one of the leading actors in crimes against humanity committed in Burma. Despite this comprehensive report, General Ko Ko has been appointed by Burma to lead its delegation to this year’s United Nations Universal Periodic Review. Every four years states are subject to this review process that provides states the opportunity to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.

To have General Ko Ko- a man explicitly linked to human rights violations- as the leader of Burma’s upcoming human rights review is sheer hypocrisy. As stated in Harvard Law’s Human Rights Blog “Human Rights @ Harvard Law,” “Ko Ko should not be the face of human rights in the new Myanmar.”

In response to Burma’s decision to have General Ko Ko lead their delegation to the UPR this fall, the U.S. Campaign for Burma has created a petition to add General Ko Ko to the U.S. Sanctions list.

As the petition states, “General Ko Ko has a long history of committing crimes against humanity and human rights abuses throughout Burma. During his post as Regional Commander in Karen State, tens of thousands of Karen fled for safer borders as they faced rape, extrajudicial murders, forced labor and portering, human shields and land grabs. Now, as Home Affairs Minister, General Ko Ko continues his attacks on any individual who supports democratic principles and desires justice. “

Sign the petition and tell President Obama to add General Ko Ko to the Specially Designated Nationals List.

Lift the Ban: The Impact of US Abortion Restrictions on Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls

When almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were recently kidnapped by local terrorist organization Boko Haram, the United States sent military and foreign aid to help rescue the victims and combat the threat posed by the militants. However, while the US support includes provisions for the victims’ protection and care, the abortion ban attached to US foreign aid bars the option of safe termination of pregnancies resulting from rape – in spite of the armed group’s announced intent to marry some of the schoolgirls and sell others into sex slavery.

In Nigeria, a major state-recipient of US foreign aid, girls and women are routinely raped as a tactic of war. This phenomenon is not unique to domestic terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, but is also practiced by the country’s military and police forces. When these rape victims, many of whom are young girls, become pregnant, the US abortion ban limits the services available to them and forces them to bear the children of their rapists. US policy thus increases the morbidity and mortality of girls and women who are impregnated by war rape.

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Five Countries Directly Challenge US Abortion Restrictions at Universal Periodic Review

Today, during the Universal Periodic Review of United States, several member states of the UN Human Rights Council made statements condemning the anti-abortion restrictions that the US places on foreign aid, such as the Helms Amendment.

The UN Human Rights Council is responsible for monitoring the human rights records of the member states; every four years each country is reviewed and presented with recommendations on how to comply with their human rights duties.

The effects of Helms are can be seen in conflict zones around the world, most recently with the rescue of 214 pregnant Nigerian women from Boko Haram. The issue of comprehensive medical care has gained traction in recent months. As a result, today the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Norway, Belgium and France orally recommended that the United States work to ensure access to safe abortions around the world and limit the negative impact of the Helms Amendment.

War rape is an illegal tactic of war, constituting torture or genocide, and denial of medical care allows the perpetuation of those crimes. The constraints of the Helms Amendment deny women and children access to safe abortions, and restrict aid agencies from even providing information about abortion services.

In September 2014, the Global Justice Center submitted a report to the UPR, highlighting the ways in which constraints against women’s reproductive rights are incompatible with the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In April 2015, GJC traveled throughout Europe advocating for countries to use the UPR process to question the current anti-abortion restrictions the US imposes.

In addition to the five oral questions, written recommendations were also submitted, requiring a response and justification, should the United States continue to uphold the Helms Amendment. The US government has three months to formulate a response. It is clear that the Obama Administration has a responsibility and urgent duty to remedy these violations.

Click here to read more. 

Pursuing Sexual Violence: UN Condemns Acts of Boko Haram

During activities for International Women’s Day of 2015 issues of escalating sexual violence were highlighted on a global scale and UN Secretary General explicitly called for action against groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS, who employ rape as a weapon of war. A report was released Monday in which the UN reiterated concern about the pervasive sexual violence in areas such as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Yemen.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence, such as forced pregnancy and marriage, are being condemned as a method of terrorism, employed by extremist groups in 19 different countries. The UN report criticizes 45 different groups for their use of sexual violence and particularly decries Boko Haram for their continued abuses.

The New York Times says, “In Sudan’s western Darfur region, it said the number of displaced civilians has increased over the past year and so have reports of sexual violence. And in South Sudan, it said sexual violence remains prevalent — including gang rape, castration, forced nudity and forced abortion — which is ‘exacerbated by impunity and a militarized society in which gender inequality is pronounced.’” However, Congo has made some encouraging progress, prosecuting officials for sexual violence and offering reparations to survivors.

In terms of Boko Haram’s violence, the report states, “Forced marriage, enslavement and the ‘sale’ of kidnapped women and girls are central to Boko Haram’s modus operandi and ideology. Abducted girls who refuse marriage or sexual contact within marriage have faced violence and death threats.”

The Global Justice Center has made recent efforts on behalf of the Chibok school girls, on the anniversary of their kidnapping,  GJC posted a letter to the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, urging action be taken against Boko Haram. GJC asked that the Chief Prosecutor investigate the kidnappings as an act of genocide, so as to spur immediate action and forestall the inevitably increase in similar attacks. Speaking about Boko Haram, General Ban Ki-moon said that actions such as these were, “an essential part of the fight against conflict-related sexual violence.”

The Cruelest Weapon

Akila Radhakrishnan and Kristina Kallas publish an article in Ms. Magazine, titled "The Cruelest Weapon" on how the US denies abortions to women raped in war.

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