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U.N. Legal Counsel Steven Hill at TJSL

March 1, 2012

Steven Hill
Steven Hill
Steven Hill

By Susanne Prochazka

On Monday, February 20, Steven Hill, Counselor for Legal Affairs at U.S. Mission to the UN, discussed “The View From Turtle Bay,” a reference to the downtown Manhattan neighborhood that houses the UN. 

Mr. Hill began with an acknowledgment of the reality of the UN system, where it is hard to achieve forward momentum with human rights issues in the face of other international concerns. However, the Human Rights Council, established in 2005 to replace the corrupt and failing Commission of Human Rights, acts as a counterpoint to the UN Security Council and is devoted to placing human rights issues on the same level as international peace and security. 

Mr. Hill then elaborated on the US’s role in the arena international human rights. Until recently, the US was disengaged from international human rights. The US is party to only 3 out of the 6 main human rights treaties, a fact for which the US has received much criticism. Since 2009 and the new administration, however, the US has entered an era of engagement, officially joining the Human Rights Council. In joining the Human Rights Council, the US has helped bring focus back to important human rights issues.

The next point was the difficulty posed by enforcing the international human rights treaties. Each State that is a party to a treaty must send a report on a periodic basis marking its continued ratification of a particular treaty. Because the US joined several international human rights treaties late, the US continues to play “catch-up” with reporting. But this reporting process has helped advance US compliance with these treaties.

Last, Mr. Hill discussed the differences between Libya and Syria. A conservative estimate indicates the Syrian conflict kills 500 people a day. The main difference between the two conflicts, said Mr. Hill, is the difficultly of working within the UN to obtain authority to conduct a lawful humanitarian intervention.  Following the intervention in Libya, authorized by General Assembly Resolution 1973, a “buyer’s remorse” afflicted several members of the UN Security Council. The Security Council has now reached a stalemate as the situation in Syria worsens. Potentially, there could be another NATO and Kosovo scenario, where the humanitarian intervention may be morally right but completely lacking a legal basis.

Overall, Mr. Hill’s presentation helped educate TJSL students on current issues within the UN human rights system.

This event was sponsored by the Center for Global Legal Studies and directed by Professor Susan Tiefenbrun.