The UN Human Rights Council has made “incremental, but notable” progress since the United States joined the body last July according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Suzanne Nossel. Her remarks come as the council concluded its most recent meeting, which was the second formal council session in which the United States participated as a full fledged member.

You may recall that the previous administration opted to vote against the creation of the council and never sought to join it. Soon after taking office last year, however, the Obama administration announced that the Council would be a testing ground for its principal of engagement. “We have a record of abject failure from having stayed out,” UN Ambassador Susan Rice said at the time. “We’ve been out for the duration and it has not gotten better. It’s arguably gotten worse. We are much better placed to be fighting for the principles we believe in…by leading and lending our voice from within.”  Needless to say, formal council sessions are a good opportunity to test this theory.

One vote in particular sheds some light on how an actively engaged United States can change the dynamics of the council.

Every so often the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) puts forward a resolution on the “defamation of religions.” The idea has gained steam since the Mohammed Cartoon controversy and, briefly stated, it condemns mocking religion and blasphemy. Western countries–quite rightly–consider this an infringement on freedom of speech and whenever the issue comes up for a vote western countries are pitted against the countries of the Organization for the Islamic Conference.The 56 member strong OIC tends to win these votes by fairly wide margins. The OIC both outnumbers western countries and, generally speaking, exerts more diplomatic effort to win the support of fence sitters in Africa and Latin America.

That was until last week. With the United States fully engaged in the process, the margin of victory for the OIC Defamation of Religions resolution dwindled to three votes compared to twelve votes it received in Human Rights Council just one year ago. There were also several shifts from abstentions to “no” votes among the Latin American and Caribbean countries and by South Korea and Zambia. According to Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch, “these shifts seriously hinder the future of this OIC sponsored resolution.”   Suzanne Nossel described the changing dynamic around this vote as “significant progress.”

To be sure, the council is not without its flaws. Nossel criticized the council’s “excessive focus” on Israel and says the United States was trying to push back against what she called its “structural bias” against Israel.  Nossel pointed to Council’s actions on North Korea, Sudan, Congo (and at the United States insistence) Guinea as evidence that the Council is beginning to focus on more appropriate “country specific” work. 

The next session of the council will take place in June and Ambassador Rice’s theory will once again be put to the test. So far, though,iIt would seem that with a little bit of effort the United States is beginning to tip the balance at the council.

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