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.

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.

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.

History's examples

In Argentina, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo marched every weekend starting in 1977 to insist that military rulers account for their “disappeared” people in accord with the country’s longstanding human rights commitments. They drew international support against the “Dirty War” in which state-sponsored brutality killed thousands, and they persisted until the shamed soldiers returned to their barracks in 1983.

Examples of demands that governments live up to their human rights rhetoric are legion. They include the US movements for civil rights, women’s rights, Native American, gay liberation and disability rights. Such demands can be unsettling. In 1994, I was denounced in the US Senate by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, for introducing the Clinton administration’s first report to the UN Human Rights Committee. Senator Helms and his allies took issue with my drawing attention to civil rights demands that had been made against the US government for decades, asserting that by doing so I was providing propaganda to America’s enemies.

The US should remain honest in reporting

Honesty should characterize US human rights reporting, not shading the truth. Otherwise, the US loses its diplomatic advantage on human rights. This year I was disappointed that the official US report to the Human Rights Council failed adequately to cover gross human rights violations committed in the “war on terror.” The report recounts President Obama’s commitment to closing the detention center in Guantanamo but makes no reference to past US torture and other abuses there that make closure necessary.

At the Human Rights Council’s general debate in September on “Human Rights Situations that Require the Attention of the Council,” 29 nations hurled charges at one another, including notorious human rights violators like Sudan, Iran, Congo, and Burma (Myanmar), as well as democracies like the US, Austria, and Japan. This exchange, rife with exaggerations and half-truths, can also expose genuine human rights abuses. History shows that stubborn facts cannot long be covered up by rhetoric, and that human rights reporting can advance the cause of human rights worldwide.

John Shattuck is a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, a former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, and the current president of Central European University in Budapest. A version of this essay previously appeared on The Hill’s Congress Blog.

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