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Opinion

By admitting its human rights problems, the US helps other nations admit theirs

When the US had its own human rights record reviewed by the UN, the usual repressive regimes took the opportunity to condemn others while glossing over their own abuses. But history shows that human rights reporting can and does advance the cause of human rights worldwide.

By John Shattuck / November 16, 2010



Budapest, Hungary

Human rights are a growing area of diplomatic competition. Since the United Nations defined the playing field in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the list of countries that say nothing about human rights has dwindled to very few. Unfortunately, that will not prevent certain countries from trying to exploit the process.

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On November 5, for example, when the US had its own human rights record reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council, the usual parade of speakers from repressive regimes that use the rhetoric of human rights to condemn failings in other countries while glossing over their own abuses was out in full force.

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A flawed, frustrating process?

This pattern frustrates US officials. After receiving comments from other countries, including Libya, a US official noted that “several recommendations are plainly intended as political provocations, and cannot be taken seriously.”

It also exasperates UN critics. They condemn the whole process of UN human rights reporting as fundamentally dishonest. A blatant example is Iran, which lies about its treatment of women in its report to the Council’s Universal Periodic Review, then waxes indignant over a US report that candidly states American women still suffer gender discrimination.

Human rights reporting works

Isn’t UN-sponsored human rights reporting just a platform for human rights abusers? On the contrary, these international obligations strengthen the case against abusive governments, especially if they lie. History is replete with examples.

In the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the Soviet Union agreed to recognize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in exchange for US and European recognition of the borders of Eastern Europe. The Soviets thought they were getting something for nothing. They had no intention of giving human rights to their citizens.

But their rhetoric gave international legitimacy to the fledgling dissident movement inside the Soviet Union and its satellites. In 1977 Vaclav Havel launched the famous Charter 77 movement in Prague; Andrei Sakharov soon began a similar drive in Russia. These movements contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet collapse in 1991.

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