(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the likely spotlight to be placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, beginning Feb. 22. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. The full list will appear, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.)

The Biden administration announced today that it will re-engage with the U.N. Human Rights Council, saying it intends to be “at the table as an observer.” The non-voting status is a possible prelude to running for a seat on the council, a status conferred by election in the U.N. General Assembly. “The @UN Human Rights Council is flawed and needs reform, but walking away won’t fix it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter today. The United States withdrew from the council under the Trump administration in 2018. “The best way to improve the Council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled U.S. leadership,” Blinken said.

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, who served from 2010 to 2013 as the first U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, says engagement with the council allows the U.S. to “influence global perspectives on crisis situations” and “gain international leverage to address human rights atrocities that otherwise might not have gotten attention.” Before Donahoe’s term, the then-four-year-old council had had no direct U.S. representation. (The council was established in 2006, replacing the U.N. Commission on Human Rights). The body is made up of 47 U.N. member States elected by the U.N. General Assembly. The council engages in a number of human rights activities, including hosting the Universal Periodic Review of all states’ human rights records and establishing human rights investigative mechanisms, such as commissions of inquiry.

I had an opportunity to speak with Donahoe about the importance of the council in human rights diplomacy, the reasons the United States and other countries made justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka a priority during her term, and some advice for the Biden-Harris administration. 

You served as ambassador to the council under the Obama administration. First off, what was your reaction to the announcement today that the U.S. become an active observer at the Human Rights Council?

This was a very important signal to send early in the administration. The Biden administration has been crystal clear that it believes strongly in multilateral diplomacy and intends to prioritize democracy and human rights. The announcement today is part of that larger effort and reinforces the message to the rest of the world that the United States is coming back to provide values-based leadership. The fact that the United States will invest diplomatic energy in an active observer role at the Human Rights Council even before it has the opportunity to become a full voting member underscores the belief in the value of rhetorical leadership and behind-the-scenes diplomacy. There is no doubt that the Human Rights Council will serve as a venue for rebuilding relationships and reestablishing its leadership in the world.

How does thie Human Rights Council ambassador position relate to other U.S. ambassadorships to U.N. agencies that are also based in Geneva?

Geneva is the locus of significant U.N. activity in Europe. Approximately 25 U.N. agencies are based there. During the Obama administration, the U.S. had four ambassadors posted in Geneva, each with a different portfolio: an ambassador for arms control, an ambassador for the World Trade Organization, a chief of mission who represented the U.S. at many U.N. agencies, and an ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council. (The U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, of course, handled the bilateral U.S.-Swiss relationship from the capital Bern.)

The decision to send an ambassador to focus on the Human Rights Council was an important early signal from the Obama administration that the United States would be investing in multilateral diplomacy and seeking to provide global leadership on human rights. In contrast to the preceding years under President George W. Bush, when a decision was made not to engage at the Human Rights Council due to its institutional flaws, President Barack Obama and his team made a conscious choice to seek election to the council and to work to reform the institution from within.

The investment paid off on a variety of fronts. We were able to build creative coalitions to support our thematic priorities, such as protecting core civil and political rights like freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association, as well as to tackle chronic and crisis human rights situations that otherwise might not have been addressed.

More specifically, we were directly involved in creation of the special rapporteur mandate to address the human rights situation in Iran and in initiating special sessions to address the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Syria. We also led in creation of a new mandate covering Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association and played a significant role in passage of the first U.N. resolution on internet freedom among many other initiatives. Having a seat at the table provided an opportunity for the U.S. to build creative coalitions to protect human rights, and allowed us to showcase U.S. values-based leadership.

What role can the Human Rights Council play in U.S. human rights policy?

The U.N. Human Rights Council is the primary vehicle for multilateral diplomatic engagement on human rights within the U.N. It provides a venue for building support for U.S. positions on crises and chronic human rights situations around the world, in partnership with our allies.

Bilateral diplomacy on human rights also is an important aspect of U.S. human rights diplomacy. That said, robust U.S. engagement at the Human Rights Council has allowed the U.S. to influence global perspectives on crisis situations as they unfold, and to gain international leverage to address human rights atrocities that otherwise might not have gotten attention.

For example, before the U.S. became a member, the HRC institutional mechanisms for holding “special sessions” to address urgent human rights situation had barely been used. During our first term at the council, we initiated multiple special sessions to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria as it evolved. We also got creative with the first resolution on Sri Lanka, by utilizing an unusual mechanism – Item 2 of the regular agenda – to call on the government of Sri Lanka to engage in further investigation with support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This approach, rather than a confrontational approach, was a new tactic that had not be utilized before.

Why did the United States take such an interest in promoting transitional justice in Sri Lanka during your tenure?

When the U.N. Panel of Experts report was made public in April 2011, the evidence was so stark and damning that we felt it was impossible not to respond if we could find a creative way to succeed at the HRC. The clear and substantial evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the final days of the Sri Lankan civil war simply could not be ignored.

Another important and shocking dimension of the report related to the failure of U.N. agencies on the ground in Sri Lanka with respect to their responsibility to protect civilians. There also was solid evidence of efforts by U.N. personnel to suppress the reporting of atrocities by civilians in the field. These U.N. failures provided significant motivation to get to the truth. In light of the facts that came out in the report, the U.S. delegation simply felt compelled to help support a process of transitional justice in Sri Lanka, and this motivated us to get creative with the diplomatic tools at our disposal.

How was the United States able to build such a diverse coalition of states to support the early Sri Lankan resolutions?

We knew it would be a very challenging to build a winning coalition on the Sri Lankan case. The vote came down to 24 members in support – which was the “magic number” in a voting body with 47 members. But as it turned out, only 15 voted against and 8 abstained. We got significant support from the African group, including from Benin, Cameroon, Mauritius, and Nigeria.

To get the level of support we achieved, the single most important element of our diplomacy was emphasis on Sri Lanka’s future, and the value and need for truth if Sri Lanka was to get past the atrocities of its civil war and move on to a peaceful future. In addition, on a more pragmatic level, with the first resolution on Sri Lanka, we utilized an unusual mechanism, Item 2 of the regular agenda, to call on the government of Sri Lanka to investigate, with the advice and technical support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This approach, rather than a confrontational approach, was as new tactic that had not be utilized before. The cooperative tone of the resolution was an important part of why some delegations were able to support the resolution. By taking a step-by-step approach, with a moderate and measured response to the situation, where the government of Sri Lanka was being asked to engage with the support of the U.N. High Commissioner, more countries were able to get onboard.

What was the significance of India voting in favor of the resolutions?

It would be hard to overstate the significance of India’s support in this case. First off, India’s support indicated that the case was serious enough that it could not be ignored, even with the political dynamics that it might trigger in the region and at home. Second, it signaled new potential for the approach of encouraging governments to engage with the human rights mechanisms of the U.N. India’s backing meant that the tone of the resolution was reasonable enough that it would be difficult to reject on the basis of it being overly condemnatory from the start.

Why did Sri Lanka eventually support subsequent resolutions?

The change of government in January 2015 helped, because the Rajapaksa regime and family were directly implicated in the alleged war crimes at the end of the civil war. By contrast, the new regime of President Maithripala Sirisena, at least in the beginning, articulated a willingness to at least consider options for justice and accountability. In addition, presumably the Sri Lankan government realized that they could not stop the process at the HRC outright, and they hoped to also appear to be approaching the investigation in a reasonable way.

Although just getting started, how should the Biden-Harris administration manage the upcoming HRC session? Is there a role for the United States to continue to push for justice and accountability, even though President Donald Trump withdrew from the council?

One small step the new team could take is to send very high-level U.S. representation to the Human Rights Council as early as possible. The damage done to the U.S. reputation during the Trump administration can be partially healed with not only early U.S. government engagement but also high level engagement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Geneva in December 2011 to meet with delegations and gave a ground-breaking speech on LGBT rights. That speech had a dramatic effect on the diplomatic community in Geneva and significantly changed the perspective of many delegations, which then translated into Human Rights Council support for LGBT rights. Before her speech, that was almost inconceivable. If Secretary Blinken were to go to Geneva to make a speech about U.S. re-engagement and our renewed commitment to protect human rights around the world, that would make a big impression and would certainly help build goodwill again quickly.

The bottom line is that renewed high-level U.S. engagement during this upcoming session – the first during the new administration – could be an effective way to deliver the message to other delegations that the protection of human rights still is a deeply rooted priority for the United States.

IMAGE: Supporters of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa attempt to push through barricades during a protest against the UN Human Rights Council’s annual session, in Colombo on February 27, 2012.  (Photo by Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images)