I’d like to thank the
Graduate Institute and for everyone that came
today. Before we get started, I think it’s important that we remember
the senseless lives [sic] that were lost in London. The United States stands
strongly with London with these careless acts and we are committed to
helping fight terrorism as it continues to go forward.
The first chairman of the United Nations organization dedicated entirely
to human rights was a chairwoman.
Eleanor Roosevelt was elected to head the
Human Rights Commission when
it first met in January, 1947. She was a natural choice. Mrs. Roosevelt
was already well known for her heartfelt
advocacy for universal human
She was a woman of deep faith. Her
nightly prayer asked God to (quote),
“make us sure of the good we cannot see, and [of the] hidden good in the
Eleanor Roosevelt was an idealist. But she was no pushover.
The first item on the Commission’s agenda was drafting
Declaration of Human Rights. During the debate, the United States and
the Soviet Union clashed repeatedly in some of the opening skirmishes of
the Cold War.
The Soviet delegate taunted Mrs. Roosevelt: How could the United States
call itself a champion of human rights when African Americans were still
discriminated against? To which Mrs. Roosevelt acknowledged that yes,
the United States still had problems, and progress was being made.
And then she proposed a deal that quieted the Soviet delegate: She said
the Soviets could send a delegation to observe the United States -- if
the United States could do the same to the Soviet Union.
Of course, the Soviets never did and never would give free reign to a
U.S. delegation. She was making a point. She was calling out a fellow
commission member for using human rights as a cover for its political
Mrs. Roosevelt’s vision of the Human Rights Commission was bigger than
any one country. She saw the Commission as a place for conscience, not
politics. She knew that if it was allowed to become a forum for
hypocrisy and political point-scoring, it would do more to hurt the
cause of human rights than to help it.
My country has a unique beginning, founded on human rights, holding
self-evident the truth that all men are created equal with rights to
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course America did not
invent these rights -- God did. Simply by our birth, human beings are
endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. These rights
belong to all of us. They are not the gift of any government. They
cannot legitimately be taken away by any government.
The American idea is that government exists to serve the people, not the
other way around. Government should secure our rights, not violate them.
We continue striving to achieve this principle through self-government,
using elections and the rule of law to hold our leaders accountable. The
inherent dignity of the individual is not secured by words but by
actions. This is the standard by which we judge ourselves as a nation --
and by which we invite others to judge us as well.
It is this commitment to the equal worth of all human beings that leads
to the United States -- that leads the United States to support universal human rights. And of course we
are not alone. There are many other nations, both on the Council and
off, that affirm universal human rights and act to protect and extend
When the Human Rights [Council] has acted with clarity and integrity, it
has advanced the cause of human rights. It has brought the names of
prisoners of conscience to international prominence and given voice to
At times, the Council has placed a spotlight on individual country
violators and spurred action, including convening emergency sessions to
address the war crimes being
committed by the Assad regime in Syria. The
Council’s Commission of Inquiry on North Korea led to the Security
Council action on human rights abuses there.
The Council is at its best when it is calling out human rights violators
and abuses, and provoking positive action. It changes lives. It pushes
back against the tide of cynicism that is building in our world. And it
reassures us that it deserves our continued investment of time and
But there is a truth that must be acknowledged by anyone who cares about
human rights: When the Council fails to act properly -- when it fails to
act at all -- it undermines its own credibility and the cause of human
rights. It leaves the most vulnerable to suffer and die. It fuels the
cynical beliefs that countries cannot put aside self-interest and
cooperate on behalf of human dignity. It re-enforces our growing
suspicion that the Human Rights Council is not a good investment of our
time, money, and national prestige.
Tragically, we’ve been down this road before.
In 2005, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan disbanded the precursor to
Human Rights Council, the
Human Rights Commission. He blamed what he
called its “credibility deficit.” The description was well-earned.
Many of the world’s worst human rights offenders were elected to the
seats on the Commission. They used those positions, not to advance human
rights, but to shield themselves from criticism or to criticize others.
In short, the Commission had lost the world’s trust. It had stained and
setback the cause of human rights.
These problems were supposed to have been fixed when the new Council was
formed. Sadly, the case against the Human Rights Council today looks an
awful like -- awful lot like the case against the discredited Human Rights Commission
over a decade ago.
Once again, over half the current member countries failed to meet basic
human rights standards as measured by
Saudi Arabia occupy
positions that obligate them to, in the words of the resolution that
created the Human Rights Council, “uphold the highest standards” of
human rights. They clearly do not uphold these -- those highest standards.
And once again, as with the disgraced and disbanded Human Rights
Commission, the victims of the world’s most egregious human rights
violations are too often ignored by the very organization that is
supposed to protect them.
In Venezuela, the government has systematically destroyed civil society
through arbitrary detention, torture, and blatant violations of freedom
of the press and freedom of expression. Children are starving to death.
Mothers dig through trash cans to feed their families. This is a crisis
that has been 18 years in the making. The Venezuelan people have been
robbed of their human rights.
And yet, not once has the Human Rights Council seen fit to condemn
Venezuela. Quite the contrary -- the Council chose to showcase
Venezuela’s work while protestors were being beaten in the streets. Just
two years ago, President Maduro was invited to address the Council, just
weeks after Venezuela was re-elected as a member.
In Cuba, the government continues to arrest and detain critics and human
rights advocates. The government strictly controls the media and
severely restricts the Cuban people’s access to the internet. Political
prisoners by the thousands continue to sit in Cuban jails. Yet Cuba has
never been condemned by the Human Rights Council. It, too, is a member
In fact, Cuba uses its membership in the Council as proof that it is a
supporter of human rights, instead of a violator that it is. The Cuban
deputy foreign minister called Cuba’s 2016 re-election to the Human
Rights Council (quote), “irrefutable evidence of Cuba’s historic prestige
promotion and protection of all human rights for [all] Cubans.'”2
This is a reversal of the truth that would make
George Orwell blush.
The list goes on.
Russia invaded Ukraine and took over Crimea. This illegal
occupation resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and injuries as well
as arbitrary detentions. No special meeting of the Human Rights Council
was called, and the abuses continue to mount.
Robert Mugabe continues his decades-long campaign of repression in
Zimbabwe. Nothing from Geneva. Instead, human rights violators Iran,
Venezuela, and North Korea, took advantage of a Council review to
commend Mugabe’s so-called “promotion and protection of human rights.”
The Human Rights Council has given a great -- has been given a great responsibility. It has
been charged with -- with using the moral power of universal human rights to be
the world’s advocate for the most vulnerable among us. Judged by this
basic standard, the Human Rights Council has failed.
In case after case, it has been a forum for politics, hypocrisy, and
evasion -- not the forum for conscience that its founders envisioned. It
has become a place for political manipulation, rather than the promotion
of universal values. Those who cannot defend themselves turn to this
Council for hope but are too often disappointed by inaction.
Once again, the world’s foremost human rights body has tarnished the
cause of human rights.
The United Nations must now act to reclaim the
legitimacy of universal human dignity.
For all of us, this is an urgent ask. Human rights are central to the
mission of the United Nations; not only are they the right thing to do,
they’re the smart thing to do.
I dedicated the U.S. presidency of the Security Council in April to
making the connection between human rights and peace and security.
This is a cause that is bigger than any one organization. If the Human
Rights Council is going to be an organization we entrust to protect and
promote human rights, it must change. If it fails to change, then we
must pursue the advancement of human rights outside of the Council.
America does not seek to leave the Human Rights Council.3
We seek to
reestablish the Council’s legitimacy.
There are a couple of critically necessary changes.
First, the UN must act to keep the worst human rights abusers from
obtaining seats on the Council. As it stands, elections for membership
to the Council are over before the voting even begins. Regional blocs
nominate slates of pre-determined candidates that never face any
competition for votes.
No competition means no scrutiny of candidates’ human rights records. We
must change the elections so countries are forced to make the case for
membership based on their records, not on their promises.
Selection of members must occur out in the open for all to see. The
secret ballot must be replaced with open voting. Countries that are
willing to support human rights violators to serve on the Human Rights
Council must be willing to show their faces. They know who they are.
It’s time for the world to know who they are.
Second, the Council’s Agenda Item Seven must be removed.4
course, is the scandalous provision that singles out Israel for
automatic criticism. There is no legitimate human rights reason for this
agenda item to exist. It is the central flaw that turns the Human Rights
Council from an organization that can be a force for universal good,
into an organization that is overwhelmed by political agenda.
Since its creation, the Council has passed more than 70 resolutions
targeting Israel. It has passed just seven on Iran. This relentless,
pathological campaign against a country that actually has a strong human
rights record makes a mockery not of Israel, but of the Council itself.
The Council’s effort to create a database designed to shame companies
for doing business in Israeli controlled areas is just the latest in
this long line of shameful actions.
Blacklisting companies without even looking at their employment
practices or their contributions to local empowerment, but rather based
entirely on their location in areas of conflict is contrary to the laws
of international trade and to any reasonable definition of human rights.
It is an attempt to provide an international stamp of approval to the
BDS movement. It must be rejected.
Getting rid of Agenda Item Seven would not give Israel preferential
treatment. Claims against Israel could still be brought under Agenda
just as claims can be brought there against any other
country. Rather, removal of Item Seven would put all countries on equal
The Council is no more justified in having a separate agenda item on
Israel than it is on having one for the United States, or Canada, or
France, or the United Kingdom. More appropriate would be to have an
agenda item on North Korea, Iran, and Syria, the world’s leading
violators of human rights.
These changes are the minimum necessary to resuscitate the Council as a
respected advocate of universal human rights.
For our part, the United States will not sit quietly while this body,
supposedly dedicated to human rights, continues to damage the cause of
In the end, no speech and no structural reforms will save the members of
the Human Rights Council from themselves. If they continue to put
politics ahead of human rights, they will continue to damage the cause
that they supposedly serve.
All those years ago, Mrs. Roosevelt understood this. She was engaged in
building an institution to bring the nations of the world together to
protect the most vulnerable. But she knew the good she was seeking would
not come from that institution, but from the hearts of men and women who
would work -- who would work in it. Every night, she prayed: “Save us from ourselves and
show us a vision of a world made new.”
I believe that vision is still achievable. I believe we can come
together. I know there are many who share the belief.
The status quo is not acceptable. It is not a place for countries who
champion human rights.
I call on all likeminded countries to join [in] making the Human Rights
Council reach its intended purpose.
Let the world be on notice: We will never give up the cause of universal
human rights. Whether it’s here, or in other venues, we will continue