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Friday, May 14, 2010

The United Nations Human Rights Council: Issues for Congress

Luisa Blanchfield
Specialist in International Relations

On March 15, 2006, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution replacing the Commission on Human Rights with a new Human Rights Council (the Council). The U.N. Secretariat and some governments, including the United States, view the establishment of the Council as a key component of comprehensive U.N. reform. The Council was designed to be an improvement over the Commission, which was widely criticized for the composition of its membership when perceived human rights abusers were elected as members. The General Assembly resolution creating the Council, among other things, increased the number of meetings per year and introduced a "universal periodic review" process to assess each member state's fulfillment of its human rights obligations. 

One hundred seventy countries voted in favor of the resolution to create the Council. The United States, under the George W. Bush Administration, was one of four countries to vote against the resolution. The Administration maintained that the Council structure was no better than the Commission and that it lacked mechanisms for "maintaining credible membership." It initially stated that it would fund and support the work of the Council. During the Council's first two years, however, the Administration expressed concern with the Council's focus on Israel and lack of attention to other human rights situations. In April 2008, the Bush Administration announced that the United States would withhold a portion of its contributions to the 2008 U.N. regular budget equivalent to the U.S. share of the Human Rights Council budget. In June 2008, it further announced that the United States would engage with the Council "only in matters of deep national interest." 

The Barack Obama Administration participated as an observer in the 10th regular session of the Human Rights Council (held in March 2009). The Administration stated that it furthers the United States' interest "if we are part of the conversation and present at the Council's proceedings." At the same time, however, it called the Council's trajectory "disturbing," particularly its "repeated and unbalanced" criticisms of Israel. In March 2009, the Obama Administration announced that it would run for a seat on the Council. The United States was elected as a Council Member by the U.N. General Assembly on May 12, 2009, and its term began on June 19, 2009. 

Since its establishment, the Council has held 13 regular sessions and 13 special sessions. The regular sessions addressed a combination of specific human rights abuses and procedural and structural issues. Six of the 13 special sessions addressed the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Lebanon. Other special sessions focused on the human rights situations in Burma (Myanmar), Darfur, Sri Lanka, and Haiti. 

Congress maintains an ongoing interest in the credibility and effectiveness of the Council in the context of both human rights and broader U.N. reform. In the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 (Division H, the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2009 of P.L. 111-8), for example, Congress prohibited U.S. contributions to support the Council unless (1) the Secretary of State certifies to the Committees on Appropriations that funding the Council is "in the national interest of the United States" or (2) the United States is a member of the Council. Withholding Council funds in this manner would be a largely symbolic policy action because assessed contributions finance the entire U.N. regular budget and not specific parts of it.

Date of Report: May 4, 2010
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: RL33608
Price: $29.95

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Haiti Earthquake: Crisis and Response

Rhoda Margesson
Specialist in International Humanitarian Policy

Maureen Taft-Morales
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

The largest earthquake ever recorded in Haiti devastated parts of the country, including the capital, on January 12, 2010. The quake, centered about 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, had a magnitude of 7.0. A series of strong aftershocks have followed. Experts estimate the earthquake caused $8 to $14 billion in damage. Approximately 3 million people, roughly onethird of the overall population, have been affected by the earthquake with estimates ranging from 1.2 to 2 million people displaced. The government of Haiti is reporting an estimated 230,000 deaths and 300,600 injured. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, President Rene Préval described conditions in his country as "unimaginable," and appealed for international assistance. As the humanitarian relief operation continues, the government is struggling to restore the institutions needed for it to function, ensure political stability, and address long-term reconstruction and development planning. Prior to the earthquake, the international community was providing extensive development and humanitarian assistance to Haiti. With that assistance, the Haitian government had made significant progress in recent years in many areas of its development strategy. The destruction of Haiti's nascent infrastructure and other extensive damage caused by the earthquake will set back Haiti's development significantly. A post-disaster needs assessment estimated the total value of recovery and reconstruction needs to be $11.5 billion. The Haitian government presented an action plan for reconstruction and development at a global donors' conference held on March 31, 2010. Donors pledged over $5 billion for the first 18 months of Haiti's reconstruction. The United States pledged $1.2 billion. Extra-constitutional rule will begin after May 10, when most parliamentarians' terms expire; President Préval will probably rule by decree after that. There is no timetable for new parliamentary elections. 

The sheer scale of the relief effort in Haiti has brought together tremendous capacity and willingness to help. As the rainy and hurricane seasons begin, the massive humanitarian relief operation underway in Haiti is focused on providing waterproof emergency shelter, improving sanitation and meeting the basic needs of the displaced and other vulnerable Haitians. The relief effort is expected to last for many months. On January 12, 2010, President Barack Obama assembled heads of U.S. agencies to begin working immediately on a coordinated response to the disaster, with the U.S. Agency for International Development through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance as the lead agency. On January 14, the Administration announced $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Haiti to meet the immediate needs on the ground. As of April 30, 2010, total humanitarian funding provided to Haiti for the earthquake had reached over $1 billion. In the FY2010 supplemental request, the Administration is seeking a total of $2.8 billion for Haiti. Of that, $1.5 billion is for relief and disaster assistance, which would reimburse U.S. government agencies for services provided and for funds already obligated for ongoing relief activities. The request for recovery and reconstruction is $1.1 billion. This is primarily for new activities, focused on urgent infrastructure repairs, especially in the energy and agricultural sectors; critical health care; governance; and security. 

The Department of Homeland Security has temporarily halted the deportation of Haitians and granted Temporary Protected Status for 18 months to Haitian nationals in the United States as of January 12, 2010. Congressional concerns include budget priorities and oversight, burdensharing, immigration, tax incentives for charitable donations, trade preferences for Haiti, and helping constituents with pending adoptions and other issues. Several congressional committees have held hearings on Haiti. The focus of this report is on the immediate crisis in Haiti as a result of the earthquake, the U.S. and international response to date, and long-term implications of the earthquake. Related legislation includes P.L. 111-117, P.L. 111-126, P.L. 111-158,H.R. 144, H.R. 264, H.R. 417. H.R. 1567, H.R. 3077, H.R. 4206, H.R. 4577, H.R. 4616, H.R. 4952, H.R. 4961, H.R. 5006, H.R. 5160, H.R. 5171, S. 2949, S. 2961, and S. 2978, S. 2998, S. 3202, and S. 3275.

Date of Report: May 6, 2010
Number of Pages: 80
Order Number: R41023
Price: $29.95

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.