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Democracy, Human Rights, Refugees: Remarks at the 25th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council

(As delivered)


Mr. President, Excellencies, five years ago — with a deep commitment to the promotion of human rights and considerable concern over how this Human Rights Council was functioning — the United States government pledged to work with countries everywhere to reform this Council’s approach and enhance its credibility, so that it could better fulfill its important mandate to investigate and call attention to violations of universally-recognized human rights. While much more remains to be done, I am here today to take stock of where we are and to re-iterate the US pledge.


I reaffirm, as well, the unswerving commitment of the United States to democracy and human rights. No where is this commitment more immediate than in Ukraine where for months tens of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate again the power of people to demand more democratic and accountable governance, in some tragic cases sacrifing their lives in the effort to make their voices heard. In responding to these developments, we should begin by insisting that all states respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the right of the Ukrainian people to shape their own political destiny. The United States categorically rejects the false pretenses put forward by the Russian Federation to justify military incursions into Ukraine’s sovereign territory. There is absolutely no evidence of human rights violations of the Russian-speaking minorities; and if concerns do emerge, the United States is prepared to work with Russia, the Human Rights Council and other relevant bodies, including the OSCE, to address them.


The new national unity government has earned the world’s respect and deserves international support, especially as the country now faces such serious threats to its security and territorial integrity. The United States is committed to helping this government strengthen the nation’s fragile economy and restore stability, unity, and confidence in public institutions and the rule of law on the way to free and fair elections in May. My colleagues, the people of Ukraine have once again validated, through their bravery and boldness, the words of Taras Shevchenko, their national bard: “The spirit is immortal and free in spite of tyrants, and human speech cannot be stifled.”


Elsewhere in the world, I recognize that some observers are experiencing a crisis of confidence about democracy. They look at recent events, especially in parts of the Arab world, and suggest that democracy fuels instability. The evidence, however, proves the opposite. If you believe in stability, you should believe in responsive, transparent and accountable government, respect for pluralism, and democracy.


The unrest we see today in other parts of the Middle East is a toxic outcome not of too much democracy – but of far too little democracy. Authoritarian rulers promise stability, but what they actually produce is the kind of instability – and atrocities — that we see now in Syria.


Two weeks ago, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution to demand an immediate end to atrocities in Syria, the overwhelming majority of which have been perpetrated by the Assad government. I welcome this action but I also note that, for the past three years, it has been this Human Rights Council — far more than the Security Council — that has investigated and exposed the truth in Syria. The Commission of Inquiry on Syria deserves our credit and gratitude for its difficult and painstaking work to expose events that have shocked the conscience of the world, including the intentional targeting of medical personnel and the enforced disappearance of thousands of individuals whom the government has detained and then refused to identify. Some say this litany of suffering is an inevitable consequence of war, but no even wars have rules. There is nothing inevitable about the use of chemical weapons, the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian neighborhoods, the destruction of hospitals and clinics, the systematic use of starvation as a tactic to kill civilians, and the widespread torture, kidnappings, executions, and sexual abuse even of children. The commission’s efforts to document such abuses remain vital both to demonstrate the urgency of ending the war, and as a step towards accountability for the crimes that have been committed.


The universal nature of human rights is the core principle that should guide the actions of this council. Religious freedom is both a core American and a universal value, and yet around the world religious minorities are under attack. In the Central African Republic, where Christian and Muslim gangs have terrorized civilians due solely to religious affiliation; in Syria where extremists have targeted Christians and Alawites; in Libya where last week, the bodies of seven murdered Egyptian Christian Copts were found on a beach; in Burma, where rampant violence and discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims continues unabated; in Iran, where religious minorities face ongoing harassment and disproportionately harsh judicial penalties; and here in Europe, where a frightening tide of repugnant anti-Semitism has surged and must, must be stopped. In these countries and elsewhere, this council has an important role to play by identifying and focusing global attention both on best practices – and on the worst.


Another set of universal human rights are the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly – rights that are vital to an independent and functioning civil society. In recent decades, civil society has blossomed as people on every continent have used political openings and new technologies to advocate for transparency, accountability and human rights. Many governments have welcomed this outpouring of innovation and citizen participation, but dozens of others have responded by cracking down on civil society, particularly journalists and human rights defenders, through repressive policies and the enactment of restrictive laws. This council has a responsibility to shine a spotlight on this upsurge in heavy-handed and undemocratic measures. To that vital end, my government will urge the council to extend the mandates of our Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and on Human Rights Defenders. We call upon all governments to assist them in their work.


I also want to speak with you about the freedom to make some of the most intimate decisions about one’s life, including decisions related to love. Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda have recently enacted laws severely abridging the human rights of individuals to find loving relationships that some do not accept. Hateful laws have already led – and, we fear, will continue to lead — to dangerous and hate-motivated attacks that terrorize the LGBT community. Close to eighty countries around the globe have laws that criminalize aspects of same sex relationships. I implore the governments represented here to do more to prevent – and roll-back — legislation that criminalizes love and is seen to legitimize discrimination and targeted violence.


In some countries it is not a minority that lacks rights, but the vast majority of citizens. Last year, this council acted wisely in establishing a commission to investigate human rights violations in North Korea. My government commends the leaders of that commission for their thorough, objective, and transparent implementation of that mandate. But also for their creativity in conducting their work without direct access to North Korea, and doing so in a way that has generated a new and important global conversation about one of the most under-discussed and devastating human rights crises of our time. The Commission has enabled hundreds of brave North Korean refugees to lift the veil of secrecy and tell their stories.


We have learned that rigorous and systematic fact finding can also play a critical role in helping countries heal wounds from periods of conflict. Without such a process, grievances go unaddressed and impunity is allowed to triumph, creating a climate in which new abuses occur. In 2012, and again this year, this council urged the government of Sri Lanka to launch an independent investigation into the deaths of thousands of civilians during that country’s terrible civil war. To date, the government has refused. Accordingly, the United States has introduced a resolution this year calling upon the Office of the High Commissioner to conduct an investigation into past abuses and to examine more recent attacks on journalists, human rights defenders, and religious minorities.


My government is encouraged by the serious, constructive, and increasingly innovative nature of the Human Rights Council’s activities. As we have noted before, however, the council is not without its weaknesses. Most pronounced among them remains the bias against Israel, a country which has much to offer the world community. How can it be that the only state with a stand-alone agenda item is not Syria, not DPRK, but Israel? The United States was very pleased to welcome Israel as a full participant in the Western European and Others Group here in Geneva. We are deeply committed to fighting against all efforts to delegitimize and isolate Israel here in Geneva, at the United Nations as a whole, and around the world. This body would go a long way towards enhancing its credibility by ending its obsessive focus on Israel.


Mister President, the best work of this council is grounded in ethical and legal traditions handed down to us from all the world’s great civilizations. It speaks to the better angels of human nature and summons us to respect the universal rights and dignity of every human being. However, in so doing, we must avoid the temptation to believe that, just because we have said something, we have done something.


Words matter but are, in themselves, of little solace to the victims of brutality and repression. Our resolutions give evidence of our caring and vigilance, but noticing is a dimension apart from acting.


We must uphold human rights at all times and in all that we do.


We must work together to enable people everywhere to live free from fear.


And we should always bear in mind these words: “Our common humanity transcends the oceans and all national boundaries [and] …binds us together in a common cause against tyranny.” Let it never be asked,” added Nelson Mandela, why we failed to act “when we knew that another was oppressed.”


Thank you.