Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer gave her annual preview of American priorities at the UN Summit to a packed house at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC yesterday. This must be an election year, because much of her remarks were less a curtain raiser for the 67th UN General Assembly than a recitation of the Obama administration’s record of accomplishment at the UN since January 2009.

To be sure, it is an impressive record. “If you look at UN accomplishments over the past four years, it’s clear there was a solid return on investments,” said Brimmer. She cited efforts to combat nuclear proliferation; Iran sanctions; the Libya intervention; preventing a resumption of war between Sudan and South Sudan; efforts to stabilize Somalia; and the Cote D’Ivoire intervention, among others, as examples of how the US has productively worked through the United Nations in service of global security.

Her most pointed remarks, though, were saved for the Human Rights Council. Joining the Human Rights Council was the earliest tangible signal to other countries at the United Nations that Barack Obama’s approach to the UN would be much, much different than his predecessor’s.  The Bush administration openly disdained the Human Rights Council, complaining that the Council unduly focused on Israel and let human rights abusers join as members. It even voted against its creation in 2005; never sought to join the Council; and basically pretended as if it did not exist.

Upon taking office, President Obama adopted a different approach. Rather than griping from the sidelines, the USA sought membership and has changed the direction of the council from within.  Since joining the council in February 2009, the USA has helped steer the focus away from relentlessly criticizing Israel to other important human rights priorities. It has dispatched a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran; set up a commission of inquiry on Cote D’Ivoire; helped block Iran and Sudan from cynically joining the council; and has passed an historic resolution equating LGBT rights with human rights, among other accomplishments.

But Brimmer’s most detailed comments focused on the work of the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria. As word of human rights abuses in Syria began to emerge in March 2011, the Human Rights Council appointed this small independent body to investigate claims of massacres, mass graves and forced disappearances. Their work has helped to create a credible fact base detailing the scope of the rights abuses in Syria. Even though the Security Council is paralyzed, the Human Rights Council has been an important driver of the debate around Syria. “Supporting the Commission of Inquiry is a good example of how UN bodies can provide credible and impartial eyes and ears to this crisis,” said Brimmer. “Because of this commission, the international community will know who to hold responsible people for human rights violations in Syria.”

At the 2009 UN Summit President Obama basically camped out at the UN for four days in September, attending all manner of high level meetings and functions. When President Obama visits the United Nations next week, it will be a much more low key affair. There will be no grand announcements, nor even any bi-lateral meetings between Obama and other heads of state.  In the midst of a heated presidential campaign, expect President Obama to drop in, give his speech, and drop out. This should not distract people from the fact that in the past three and half years have ones of productive engagement with the UN.

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