At the U.N. General Assembly this morning, President Obama spoke forcefully in favor of free speech and human rights more broadly, saying “Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we disagree with.” The General Assembly was, as it turns out, an appropriate venue for the President’s words: according to a new report, diplomatic engagement with U.N. member states have moved important elements of the organization more in line with universal ideals about human rights.
The study, conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations, tallies vote counts in the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council and determined how many states voted with the EU bloc, with which the U.S. aligns almost identically (according to the report) on human rights issues like condemnations of atrocities and endorsement of basic legal rights protections. The study found “that there is a genuine shift [since 2008] towards Western human rights positions in UN forums, extending beyond the Syrian case, but that this is built on fragile foundations.”
While some of this shift can be explained by repressive Arab states aligning with the West on Syria votes, this is by no means the entire shift. Indeed, the vote counts in the General Assembly and Human Rights Council suggests a genuine global shift in favor of Western views that splits the influential BRICS — India, Brazil and South Africa backing pro-rights resolutions and Russia and China opposing them:
[T]here have been glimmers of progress in diplomacy on other countries on the General Assembly’s agenda. In recent years, the EU and U.S. have supported annual resolutions tackling the state of human rights in Myanmar, Iran and North Korea. Although the number of countries voting in favor of the Burmese resolution remained roughly level over the last two years, the number backing the Iran resolution jumped from 78 to 89 and that on North Korea from 106 to 123. Most of the Arab countries that supported the Syrian resolutions did not back the West in any of these cases (Gulf Arab countries avoid taking on Iran directly at the UN) although Libya and Tunisia did vote for them. U.S. and European diplomats can take credit for building up human rights coalitions beyond Syria in the General Assembly. The same is true at the Human Rights Council.
One of the report’s authors gives significant credit for the changing vote counts to the Obama administration’s more engaged approach to the U.N., saying “the Bush administration still adopted a semi-detached approach to multilateral institutions. Since 2009, the Obama administration has adopted a much more engaged posture and the U.S. and Europeans have gradually strengthened their position at the UN.” Further, Ted Piccione, an expert on the United Nations at the Brookings Insitute, has written that “human rights is rising on the agenda of the international community and leading to surprising, albeit slow, progress” as a consequence of (in part) “determined leadership from the United States and other democracies.”
Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, by contrast, have publicly embraced extreme anti-U.N. conspiracy theories. Top Romney adviser and potential Romney administration Secretary of State John Bolton was, as Ambassador to the U.N. for President George W. Bush, famously contemptuous of the organization.