In Honor of Human Rights Day: The Honorable Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe Reflects on U.S. Leadership Towards Human Rights

Written by Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, Former US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, for the A3A blog in honor of International Human Rights Day. In the lead up to International Human Rights Day, I had the opportunity this past week to participate in the annual Human Rights First summit in Washington, D.C. Human Rights First CEO Elisa Massimino asked me to share my reflections on my tenure as the first US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.  Our conversation was framed around the question of US leadership on human rights and what difference full and wholehearted US engagement can make in multilateral organizations like the UN Human Rights Council.  The simple but clear answer from my experience is that principled, pragmatic US engagement can make a huge difference.

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Press conference with cross-regional co-sponsors of the Syria resolution, including Turkey, Jordan, UK, France, Qatar, Italy, Saudi Arabia, US. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

When the US arrived as a new member four years ago, the Council was perceived both domestically and globally as the poster child for UN bureaucratic dysfunction.  Most egregious crisis and chronic human rights situations were ignored, and core civil and political rights so essential to human rights advocacy were de-emphasized.  Obstructionist regional group dynamics - - through which members of groups prevented criticism of each other so that they in turn would be protected from future criticism - - was the modus operandi of most voting members.  The views of human rights defenders, civil society actors and victims were not incorporated into the work of member states, and their voices were sometimes squelched in the chamber where member states worked.  In effect, this all meant that most meaningful action on human rights was blocked.

With a full and realistic understanding of these weaknesses, we set out three core priorities:

1.   To make a difference on the ground and in the halls of the UN for human rights defenders and victims;

2.  To enhance the efficacy of the Council in addressing crisis and chronic human rights situations;

3.  To find new avenues to work cooperatively with other nations cross-regionally toward effective human rights protection and promotion.

These priorities became touchstones for US engagement at the Council.  In the past 4 years, we made significant progress in all three areas.  The Council agenda now includes most of the world’s worst human rights crisis situations and chronic human rights settings, including Iran, Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka, DPRK and many others.  Freedom of expression and Freedom of association and assembly have regained a place of importance as foundational elements for the work of human rights defenders around the globe.  The voices of victims and civil society actors are protected in the Council chamber and human rights advocates and defenders play a significant role in influencing the Council’s agenda.  And very importantly, most initiatives are co-sponsored by creative cross-regional coalitions, rather than by parochially oriented groups of countries from the same region.

 Reception in honor of Somalian Prime Minister, with members of civil society including Juile DeRivero, Geneva Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva.

At the Human Rights First summit, Elissa asked how such a dramatic turn around could have happened in such a short period of time, and what tactics the US employed to help in this reform process.  There are several answers.  First off, passion, clarity of purpose and basic skills of human interaction go a long way in diplomatic settings.  Delegations are made up of people, who often are impacted as much by how a message is delivered, as by the substance of the message itself.  We found that early outreach to small delegations from all regions of the world was a great way to show respect and find new allies.  Listening well, making the effort to understand the views of others, and finding ways to incorporate their concerns into our initiatives went a long way in building trust and new partnerships.

Second, it was very important to seize opportunities when they presented themselves.  The Arab spring brought a wave of popular demands and protests across an entire swath of the Middle East and North Africa region.  Those human rights developments presented Council members with a whole new set of country situations to consider and challenged members to consider their responsibilities in a new light.  While Libya, as a sitting member of the Council would have never made it to the agenda in the past, the spirit of the Arab awakening shook up the dynamics and caused many counties in the region to consider anew whether they really wanted to back a dictator like Qaddafi while he declared to the world that he would “hunt down the opposition like rats.”  Similarly, in case of Syria, the emotional impact of a news report about a funeral for peaceful protestors at which family members were gunned down by Assad forces, made it possible to convince voting members to hold an urgent session and get Syria onto the Council agenda. The human rights and humanitarian crisis in Syria has dominated the agenda at the Council ever since that first urgent session in April 2011. While Council members have not been able to find a way to end the bloodshed, the Council did establish a Commission of Inquiry that has been methodically investigating and documenting evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity so that those responsible will be held accountable.  Before the Arab spring, this would have been inconceivable at the Human Rights Council.  In effect, the Arab awakening brought an awakening to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and we seized the opportunity.

  Syria Commission of Inquiry presenting their findings in the Human Rights Council chamber. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

Syria Commission of Inquiry presenting their findings in the Human Rights Council chamber. Photo by U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

None of the significant changes in the working dynamics at the Human Rights Council would have been possible but for an entire group of gifted diplomats from around the world, open to new ways of working together and willing to trust and partner with the United States.  But the decision made by President Obama early in his first term along with Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice, to distinctly shift the US policy stance toward the Human Rights Council from one of principled resistance to one of principled but pragmatic engagement, has meant that the full effect of US leadership could be made manifest.

If there is one overriding basis for knowing that US leadership at the Council has made a difference, it is that human rights defenders turn to the US delegation on a daily basis to ask for support in championing their causes and to help ensure that their voices are heard.  The people who risk their lives on the front lines of the struggle for human rights believe that the United States presence at the Council has real and positive impact.  Their message has been received and the US will not disregard their call or turn back.


Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe served as United States Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the lead UN body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Appointed by President Obama as the first U.S. representative to the Council, Ambassador Donahoe served during a period marked by transformative change, as people around the world have given ever-greater voice to their desire to forge their own destinies and live with liberty, dignity, justice, and opportunity.

Before undertaking her role as Ambassador, Ms. Chamberlain Donahoe was an Affiliate Scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Her Ph.D. dissertation, entitled:  “Humanitarian Military Intervention: The Moral Imperative Versus the Rule of Law,” addressed conflicting legal and ethical justifications for humanitarian military intervention.