Is the U.S. Prepared to Win at the UN Human Rights Council? We Just Did

03/25/2011 03:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The establishment of a UN special rapporteur on the Islamic Republic of Iran today marks the UN Human Rights Council's most significant achievement to date and represents the crown jewel of the Obama administration's performance on the body since it became a member. The landmark resolution establishes the first new country rapporteur since the creation of the Council in 2006 and affirms its ability to address one of the world's most challenging human rights crises.

Authored by the United States and Sweden, the resolution was co-sponsored by over fifty countries from around the world, including Chile, the Maldives, Georgia, and Zambia, and adopted in Geneva by a vote of 22 states in favor, 7 against and 14 abstentions. High level lobbying by the United States and its partners over many months helped build broad cross-regional support for the initiative and succeeded in persuading countries like Brazil, South Korea, and Senegal to change their positions from past Iran resolutions.

Today's victory would have been impossible a few years ago, when the Bush administration chose to sit on the sidelines rather than work to strengthen the Council. The absence of the U.S. -- a traditional leader on human rights issues -- opened the way for states hostile to human rights to dominate the Council's work. It struggled under the weight of authoritarian states committed to diluting its mandate to address actual violations taking place around the world.

Without a strong US counterweight, non-democratic states such as Cuba, Algeria, China, and Pakistan joined forces to blunt the Council's work and bully other states. Scrutiny of serious human rights violations in countries like Iran, Cuba, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were discontinued, weakened, or avoided altogether. Human rights standards and norms such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion came under attack by a cross-regional coalition of countries led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The Obama administration's 2009 decision to reverse the counterproductive non-engagement policy is producing dramatic changes at the Geneva-based body, as evidenced by this week's vote on Iran. The United States wasted no time in working to reverse the worrying trend away from country scrutiny. In addition to the victory on Iran, attention to severe situations in Sudan and Burma have been strengthened, while emerging conflicts in Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Cote D'Ivoire, and Libya were swiftly addressed. The U.S. has worked intensively to combat the dangerous resolution on "defamation of religions," and achieved another signal victory this week when the whole concept was abandoned by its sponsors.

Not all serious situations are addressed similarly, equally, or adequately by the Human Rights Council. The Council's disproportionate focus on Israel continues to be cause for concern. The body is subject to competing intergovernmental tensions and interests, and a sustained diplomatic effort is necessary to achieve results. Yet the benefits of US participation are as evident as the costs of disengagement. This is true for victims -- like in Iran -- suffering at the hands of repressive governments who look to the Council to shine a light on their situation, as well as for US citizens who do not want to see universal human rights standards and norms diluted at the hands of non-democratic regimes.

Critics of the Council love to point to the non-democratic nature of some of its member states as a reason to disengage. Yet it is precisely the persistence of authoritarian regimes that creates the need for the United States to promote and protect the values we believe in. It's easy to walk away from our ideological adversaries for fear of losing. But fighting and winning on human rights is a far more appropriate role for the United States in the world. The Obama administration deserves credit for the positive changes we've witnessed at the Human Rights Council even as we recognize that there is more to be done. The Iranian people will be the most recent beneficiaries. For those still denied their rights in places like Burma and North Korea, and those struggling to attain them in Bahrain and Belarus, it is critical for us to stay, to lead, and to win - just as we did today.

Dokhi Fassihian is executive director of the Washington-based Democracy Coalition Project, which monitors the work of the United Nations on human rights issues.