Remarks
Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Opening Session
Geneva, Switzerland
March 1, 2010


-- Press briefing following address

Date: 03/01/2010 Location: Geneva, Switzerland Description: Under Secretary Maria Otero Addresses the Human Rights Council. © U.S. Mission/GenevaThank you, Mr. President. It is a pleasure to be here with all of you today.

When we ran for election to the Human Rights Council in 2009, we did so out of a renewed commitment to the Council, to the United Nations, and to the defense of human rights and human dignity around the globe. At the September plenary session of the HRC, we made clear that three tenets guide our participation: a commitment to principled engagement; consistent application of international human rights law; and a fidelity to the truth.

By principled engagement, we mean we will support what the Council does well, and we want to work constructively on aspects where we see the need for fundamental change. We seek to build partnerships that transcend traditional geographic groupings and that are based on an appreciation of shared responsibilities to the world community.

The second tenet is a dedication to apply consistently international human rights law to all countries in the world, including ourselves. We seek to lead by example, by meeting our own obligations under both domestic and international law. This November we will report to the Council through the Universal Periodic Review. We are engaging in several months of consultations throughout the United States to hear what civil society and community leaders have to say about the USG human rights record. We will be considering the outcomes of these consultations in developing our report to the HRC and in considering what needs to and can change with respect to our record.

The third tenet is fidelity to the truth. We will not hesitate to challenge resolutions and other actions that we believe undermine the effectiveness of the Council and its mandate. One aspect of the Council’s mandate is to gather information on human rights conditions around the world and to make that information publicly available. We are determined to support special procedures and country mandates which advance that mandate. We are concerned about efforts by some Council members to eliminate or weaken country mandates. The Council’s approach to country specific mandates must be objective, unbiased, and applied consistently.

This is our policy — the expectations we have set for ourselves. We will promote these same expectations for the Human Rights Council and for the current session.

Turning to the topic of the review of the Council, first, we believe the Council should promote and develop measures that truly help the human rights situation on the ground for real people in a timely fashion. This means the HRC must collect human rights information. It is important that the Special Rapporteurs, for example, remain independent, that they have proper resources, and that they are allowed to conduct visits.

Second, the Council must assess the information properly, which in turn means that Council Members should not attempt to curtail the independence of the messengers, politicize the debate on human rights situations, or minimize human rights problems.

Finally, the HRC must act after it reviews this information. Sometimes such action will take the form of focusing a spotlight on severe situations; sometimes the appropriate action will take the form of providing technical assistance to a country that is willing to improve its record or financial resources to assist them in building the capacity to undertake needed reforms. As the High Commissioner has said on multiple occasions, the Council needs to find flexible, creative, and effective ways to address specific situations wherever they occur. These three principles will guide our approach for the 2011 review.

We will be working with all Council members and observers to meet the numerous challenges and opportunities presented in the current session. One of these is addressing the real problem of religious intolerance and discrimination and the negative impact that such discrimination has on individuals’ lives. We are seriously concerned about inflammatory speech and language that reinforces negative stereotypes of individuals based on their religion. These are issues that need to be addressed in practical and effective ways. But we do not support the concept of “defamation of religions,” that has been proposed here. We also do not endorse calls to criminalize and ban speech that is offensive to members of religious traditions. We strongly believe that censoring offensive ideas cannot and will not prevent racism or religious discrimination.

What we do support is efforts by states to take practical steps to address discrimination, intolerance, and hateful acts. In October, during a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards, we presented an action-oriented approach that includes efforts to support implementation of anti-discrimination laws, enactment and enforcement of hate crimes laws, governmental outreach to members of minority groups, ensuring that members of minorities have a voice in public discourse, and greater human rights education and inter-faith activities. We are committed to this approach and believe that it represents a useful and productive way forward in addressing our shared concerns about discrimination and intolerance without infringing on freedom of expression or freedom of religion. We will continue to discuss and advocate for this alternative approach at the upcoming session and urge other states to work with us in this effort.

We also continue to have concerns about disproportionate attention the Council pays to Israel, which is the only country that has its own agenda item. And while we have a series of specific concerns about the Goldstone report, which we have outlined in the past, we will continue to call upon all of the parties to conduct serious reviews of the allegations in that report and to establish credible accountability systems. The Government of Israel has initiated an investigation and review of the allegations in the Goldstone Report as well as other complaints arising out of the Gaza conflict of 2008/2009 and has detailed the first phase of its domestic investigations process to the UN Secretary General. The Palestinian Authority also has recently set up an Independent Investigation Commission to follow up on implementation of the recommendations made in the Goldstone Report. We support the notion of complementarity, which assumes that the best way to address these issues is for each party to conduct its own investigations and to carry out its own remedial actions. Ultimately, the United States is committed to working with the parties to bring about a comprehensive peace in the region, including two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. This will be best way to ensure a long term protection of human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Of course, human rights challenges reach well beyond the border of Palestine and Israel. We believe the Council could and should play a helpful role in accompanying Guinea through its current transition, by focusing on opportunities for technical assistance and safeguards to strengthen the new government’s ability to promote and protect human rights. We also remain deeply concerned about the lack of capacity to prosecute human rights abusers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), particularly in the military. We look forward to hearing the report from the seven thematic rapporteurs and the High Commissioner on Human Rights at this session. At this March session, the mandates for the DPRK and Burma, among others, will be up for renewal and the United States will strongly support their renewal. The human rights situation in both of these countries remains very poor. The HRC resolutions are not exhaustive but serve to highlight areas of particular concern and call on the mandated governments to address the issues raised. They also authorize special rapporteurs for human rights for each of those nations. The DPRK has refused to allow the Special Rapporteur for human rights to visit. Given the DPRK’s engagement with the Universal Periodic Review process earlier this year, we hope the DPRK government will end its refusal to engage with the Special Rapporteur. We again urge the Council to maintain its focus on these countries by renewing these mandates.

The goals I have outlined here for the March session and beyond are ambitious in many ways but they correspond to the very reason the Human Rights Council was established: to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. Our expectations should be nothing less and the United States will continue to strongly advocate that the Council meet these expectations.

Thank you, Mr. President.